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Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022

OC Leader Board: Filling the Secret Silo

When I was young, I imagined—as many Americans probably do—that there was a secret government silo of advanced weaponry that would save us if war ever broke out.

We’d probably never have to use it, of course—the American military was unquestionably the world’s greatest, and no nation would ever seriously challenge our strategic interests. But were some crazy foreign leader to decide to invade one of our allies, or, worse, the United States itself, we’d fire up the directed energy weapons, engulf the enemy in a stasis field, and win the war without firing a shot.

About a decade ago, the penny dropped that that just wasn’t true.

I began to realize that we had no science-fiction weaponry while working on Project Bravemind, a Defense Department-funded program using virtual reality technology to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

My experience with Bravemind was eye-opening: I encountered a lot of really good people trapped in a really archaic system. The bureaucracy, the technology they were using, and the hurdles they had to leap over to make a meaningful difference to the world were appallingly bad. Working for the lab was one of my first “office jobs,” so part of me just assumed that this was how things were in the real world.

Government Inefficiency

I soon discovered that this level of inefficiency was pretty unique to the government.
When my first company, Oculus VR, was acquired by Facebook for $2.3 billion, I saw the world of Big Tech close-up. There were a lot of crazy things at Facebook, but for a company with tens of thousands of employees, it was pretty efficiently run. They were able to recruit highly talented engineers, build new products, and improve upon their old ones.
But if Facebook and companies like it were hiring all the great engineers, who was building technology for the government?

It certainly wasn’t Facebook itself, which does almost no work with the Department of Defense at all. The culture at Facebook was so inimical to the military that an employee once called the police when I parked my Humvee in the Facebook parking lot.

We weren’t allowed to use the words “Taiwan” or “Tibet” for fear of angering the Chinese Communist Party and preventing Facebook from spreading into China. There isn’t even a single American flag at the Facebook headquarters.

Rather, it was the same prime contractors, all founded decades ago, building the weapons protecting our warfighters. Their cost-plus business model, long timelines, and lack of competition meant they were producing fewer things than ever and charging taxpayers more than ever to do so.

One quote from Ben Rich, the former Director of Lockheed’s Skunk Works program, stood out to me: “In my 40 years at Lockheed, I worked on 27 different airplanes. Today’s young engineer will be lucky to build even one.” That was in 1994—things have become even worse since then.

Not so Crazy

Meanwhile, the “crazy” hypothetical of another country challenging America’s strategic interests was starting to feel more and more likely. China had spent two decades modernizing its military, designing weapons specifically to unseat America as the world’s dominant power. Russia had annexed Crimea, seemingly unafraid of the consequences of Western retribution.

While my colleagues at Facebook continued to act like we’d arrived at the end of history, the world was taking advantage of our complacency.

I realized that our military needed a company with the engineering talent of Facebook, and the patriotism of the people working on programs like Bravemind.

I didn’t think I’d be the one to found that company, but life can be funny like that—Facebook fired me in 2017. I founded Anduril Industries later that year, furious that I could no longer work on my passion—virtual reality—but suddenly free to pursue my vision for a next-generation defense contractor.

Beyond getting to found Anduril, one silver lining of Facebook firing me is that I got to move back down to Southern California and set up shop in Orange County.
The Bay Area prides itself on being the first to spot emerging trends, but with national security and the rise of our strategic adversaries, they were the last.

Patriotic Engineers

By contrast, most of the people I meet in OC are very cognizant of the importance of our military. There’s a rich history of defense technology development in SoCal, a strong talent pool of patriotic engineers.

In five years, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve at Anduril. I’ve hired over 1,200 people to reboot the arsenals of the world’s democracies.

We’ve brought Silicon Valley’s attention back to national defense, and, in large part thanks to our success, have convinced venture capitalists that defense companies are a good place to invest their money. More and more politicians I talk to in D.C. have realized that the old defense companies aren’t capable of building the kind of technology we need to stay ahead of our adversaries.

Even companies like Alphabet, i.e. Google—which famously backed out of its Project Maven contract with the Department of Defense—have started to work on technology for our military again.

We haven’t quite filled the secret silo yet—that’ll require the efforts of not just Anduril, but other companies building new technology for our armed services. But we’ve achieved much more than our doubters, and even I, imagined possible when we started out. I can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.

Editor’s Note: Palmer Luckey wrote this article for the Business Journal. Anduril Industries’ next round of financing could reportedly value the Costa Mesa firm between $7 billion to $8 billion.


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