Connecting ASU innovation to national defense needs

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Drew Trojanowski and Samantha Hiller have joined ASU to catalyze a statewide national security ecosystem that can provide fast solutions for DOD problems.

Photo credit: Andy DeLisle

By Mikala Kass

Jan. 24, 2020

With six major active-duty military installations; the most innovative university in the nation; and branches of companies like Boeing, Raytheon and General Dynamics calling the state home, Arizona is built to be a national security powerhouse. The challenge is that defense contractors and higher education institutions aren’t aligned into a cohesive ecosystem that can quickly respond to the Department of Defense’s most pressing challenges.

Enter Drew Trojanowski and Samantha Hiller, who recently joined Arizona State University to build those connections and help the university work with the DOD to rapidly innovate new solutions for problems that require minds from many disciplines.

Trojanowski is an ASU alumnus and a veteran of the U.S. Army. After leaving the military, he moved back to his native Arizona, where he witnessed firsthand the 2014 Phoenix VA scandal that brought the health care system’s inadequacies into the national spotlight.

Drew Trojanowski
Drew Trojanowski is the new assistant vice president of strategic initiatives at ASU Knowledge Enterprise. Photo credit: Andy DeLisle

“The failure of the federal system was anathema to me, and I wanted to figure out how to fix it, how to make it more effective,” he says. “That’s just my modus operandi as a person.”

That journey led him to become the senior policy advisor to Senator John McCain and serve as the special assistant to the president for the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. There he helped create the MISSION Act, which strengthens the VA health care system and improves veterans’ access to health care.

He brings that same knack for improving existing systems and envisioning better ones to his new role at the university. As the assistant vice president of strategic initiatives for the ASU Knowledge Enterprise, he will be strategizing the university’s efforts related to veterans and defense.

“The opportunity is right on the table for Arizona to break through and become a market for emerging national security technology,” Trojanowski says. “I believe that ASU should be the catalyst for a national security innovation ecosystem.”

To find out how to effectively leverage the might of ASU’s researchers and students to create solutions for national security, he first needs to know what the DOD needs. That’s where Hiller comes in.

Hiller, who formerly served as McCain’s press secretary in Washington, D.C., now serves as the university program director for ASU on behalf of the National Security Innovation Network, a DOD program office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering. NSIN works with non-traditional problem solvers to generate and accelerate new solutions to national security challenges. In addition to ASU, NSIN has program directors on the campuses of six other top research universities.

Samantha Hiller
Samantha Hiller is the ASU-based university program director for the National Security Innovation Network. Courtesy of Samantha Hiller.

“For us to be strategic in the way that we're deploying our programs and connecting dots, it's most helpful to have somebody on the ground,” says Hiller, who partners with Trojanowski to match the DOD’s needs with ASU’s resources. “My goal here is to turn Arizona’s defense footprint into an ecosystem, with ASU at the epicenter.” 

Two of several NSIN programs that Hiller will implement at ASU starting this spring are X-Force and Hacking for Defense. Both programs afford graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to collaborate with the U.S. military to solve national security problems.

The X-Force fellowship allows students to either work remotely or embed with a host military unit for applied national security problem solving. Applications are available for summer 2020, with other programs offered throughout the year. The program calls for students with a range of skills, such as STEM, app development, data analysis, hardware prototyping, social media strategy and technology scouting.

Students participating in the fellowship also gain access to unique experiences. On January 27, NSIN will host an F-35 Lightning II and MV-22 Osprey at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, near the Polytechnic campus, where this semester’s X-Force students, as well as faculty and staff, will get an up-close look at the aircraft.

Hacking for Defense will be offered through ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the School of Sustainability as a spring 2020 course for both undergraduates and graduates called “Lean startup problem solving for sustainability.”

Students in this class will design, build and test solutions for real-time DOD needs while engaging with both the military and civilian defense companies. It not only gives students applied experience in their fields, but also benefits local defense companies, who will have a pool of knowledgeable future employees in a high-demand industry.

And those DOD needs aren’t all about weaponry and warcraft — most involve everyday problems that, if solved, would help service members be safer and more efficient.

Trojanowski gives the example of F-16 hangars at Luke Air Force Base. The hangars were built specifically to house F-16s, but the base now needs them to service F-35s. These planes have exhaust pipes nearly twice as big as those on the F-16s, which make the ambient temperature inside the hangar deadly. Trojanowski argues that the situation is the perfect opportunity for students to engage.

“Students can create a hypothesis, build a minimum viable product and work with the stakeholder until they have a deployable solution,” he says. “From there, it becomes a discussion around transitioning to government sponsor and building a new company.”

Hiller and Trojanowski have a common goal, which is to demystify national security to students and researchers who may not know how their skills can serve the country.

“Almost every discipline that you can think of applies to the Department of Defense,” Hiller says.

National security is a broad term that refers to efforts that ensure the country survives and thrives. It encompasses much more than people may realize, such as communications, design, psychology, health, agriculture, energy, business, analytics, artificial intelligence and engineering.

Trojanowski envisions a future in which ASU innovation on all these fronts — and more — is part of a statewide ecosystem that can act quickly when the DOD needs a solution.

“We are designing this to solve problems in a way that no one else is — agile, innovative and disruptive. No one else is thinking with this type of entrepreneurial mindset right now. That will give us a very specific advantage,” Trojanowski says. “We will become the go-to place to quickly solve national security problems.”

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