What Happens When A Wildly Ambitious Young Startup Decides To Work With The Military?
Inc.|June 2019

There were hoodies. Robots. Free drinks. Young founders milling around a loftlike, concrete-floored space.

Tom Foster

Your typical startup demo day, in other words—except for the presence of a four-star Army general and pockets of uniformed military personnel and besuited corporate types with name tags from giant defense contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton. And the senior U.S. senator from Texas, John Cornyn, standing near the general, along with the mayor of Austin and the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

It was February 21, opening day of the Center for Defense Innovation, in the downtown Austin high-rise that houses Capital Factory, the city’s leading accelerator. Last fall, the U.S. Army chose Austin as the home for its new Army Futures Command, the most sweeping modernization effort in decades across the largest branch of the military. As the pace of tech change has quickened, the Army has begun to look badly outdated in fields like artificial intelligence and robotics. The AFC intends to fix that by working with startups; the new space within Capital Factory is where it all will come together.

“This is the only place in the world where an entrepreneur can walk in off the street and engage authentically with members of the defense and intelligence communities,” said Capital Factory founder Joshua Baer in his remarks. “The best petri dish for innovation in the nation,” Cornyn intoned. Besides the AFC, several other military-innovation groups— notably the Air Force’s Afwerx and the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit—were establishing beachheads in the new space, where they’d spend time with scrappy founders, sharing ideas, spreading around some of the $320 billion the Pentagon spends annually on contractors and generally helping to keep the peace, or at least ensure U.S. dominance. It sounded good. It looked good—disparate worlds coming together with a shared purpose. It was happening, though, just as there was much handwringing in tech about working with the military. Last June, Google canceled its Project Maven partnership with the Pentagon—it sought to improve drone-strike accuracy with A.I.—after about 4,000 employees protested. The very week that the Austin Center for Defense Innovation opened, more than 100 Microsoft workers signed a letter to their top executive objecting to a $480 million Army program to turn the company’s Holo- Lens augmented-reality headsets into battlefield devices intended to increase soldiers’ “lethality.” (Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stood firm, citing a patriotic duty to work with the military.) But beyond the ethical issues of turning commercial products into killing machines (see “Should Startups Work With the Military?” page 34), for startups, there’s the brute fact that the government is often a lousy partner, with its slow-grinding pace, its layers of bureaucracy, and the potential fallout from changing political winds.

Still, hundreds of Austin entrepreneurs have shown up for defense-focused events at Capital Factory. Among the companies that demoed technology on opening night: Valkyrie, whose machine vision may help detect potential explosive devices; Apptronik, which showed off a pair of bipedal robot legs; and Athena Security, which spots firearms in a crowd. And then there was Senseye, founded by David Zakariaie, which makes technology that enables computers to read people’s minds by monitoring their eyes.

Zakariaie, who has dense stubble and close-cropped black hair, is just 22. A Disney freak who visits its theme parks every month or two and can recite endless arcana about them, he speaks with a boyish stutter that makes his eyes flutter and tends to make listeners hang on his every word. That night, he huddled with government officials while staffers administered a lie-detector test to attendees: A camera peered into subjects’ eyes as they answered questions, and a digital readout indicated their truthfulness as measured by tiny ocular movements—allegedly with far more accuracy than a polygraph. Zakariaie had conducted countless such demonstrations in recent months, as local leaders paraded him in front of military brass and media every time there was an event related to the AFC. “The poster boy,” Baer called him.

Senseye had already landed a contract with the Air Force. But what few besides Zakariaie knew that night was how difficult that relationship had become. Being a mascot for startups working with the military is one thing. Making that odd-couple collaboration work, he was learning, was a much different story.

At times, it seems some mythmaker conjured up Zakariaie as the prototypical wunderkind teen with a world-changing idea and no internal limiter. He was an awkward 15-year-old when he hatched the idea that became Senseye. Back then, he lived in Los Angeles and spent his afterschool hours tinkering in a UC Irvine nanotechnology lab. He decided to try to build a microscopic computer—using DNA instead of silicon—small enough to fit inside, say, a contact lens. (“This technology carries the implications and potential to be a total game-changer in the sense that DNA computers will render current silicon-based technologies as useful as the cassette tape,” he wrote in a 2016 patent application.) He put together a proof-of-concept paper and submitted it to the California State Science Fair—and was promptly disqualified because he says, the judges didn’t believe he’d done the work himself. But an admiral from the Office of Naval Research approached him after the awards ceremony and offered him a small grant to pursue his vision.

Zakariaie tested out of high school, got to work, and soon his idea morphed. “As awesome as the bionic chip concept was, I realized it didn’t make sense until we figured out the command-and-control mechanism around it,” he says. “If you had a computer in a contact lens, you’re not going to use a keyboard or a mouse or a touchscreen. Those things serve as a bridge between man and machine. So the idea was to shift it—to figure out a way to tap into the brain wirelessly.”

By late 2013, when the world was agog over Google’s connected eyeglasses (remember when Google Glass was a thing?), Zakariaie began homing in on how his idea might become a business. He would build market-research applications for Glass, he decided, that collected data on everything shoppers interacted with in a store. But he realized “the data would be worthless until we could figure out why people made purchase decisions. Did you buy the Tide detergent because of the price? The packaging? The shelf placement? Because your mom always bought it?” Decades of research had shown that reading pupil dilation provides important clues to brain activity, but this works in the lab better than in the real world, where it’s difficult to isolate what a person is reacting to. Zakariaie decided to focus on the iris and its thousands of muscle fibers that control the pupil and tie back to the nervous system. Able to measure much finer eye movements, he could, in theory, begin to understand more precisely what drives them.

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