Shift Ventures Fellow Spotlight: Bon Strout

by Bon Strout on March 14th, 2022

Shift Ventures Fellow Spotlight: Bon Strout cover

As a member of the U.S. Air Force Rescue and #AFWERX, I have been working to modernize the tools used by Search and Rescue to increase the odds of survival of those lost at sea. Every year, hundreds of individuals find themselves isolated and at the mercy of the ocean, creating a dangerous scenario which is impossible to navigate without the best technological tools and deep expertise.

Being in the ocean is one of the more extreme environments to be isolated. The conditions that make it hard to survive also make it difficult to locate and rescue the isolated; rescue is rarely a simple mission. Attempting to modernize the Search and Rescue model is arguably just as difficult.

Systems are out of date: the “how” hasn’t changed in over 20 years. And changes that have been adopted, have not been implemented at the speed of relevancy.

Five years ago, I began exploring different approaches to solving Search and Rescue’s toughest problem statements. During this discovery process, two significant experiences led me to become a Fellow at Scale.

In my first experience, I was deployed as a United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Tech Advisor as a Personnel Recovery Subject Matter Expert (SME). I had the opportunity to share these problem statements with Josh Wolfe, co-founder of Lux Capital, and the rest of the SOCOM Tech Advisory Panel team. Josh shared his opinion on how the DoD could use a page out of the venture capital playbook: to move faster with sustainable speed in developing solutions.

Seeing how Josh was investing in startups that invent the future inspired me. I began to engage with early-stage startups to find new solutions that would save lives.

The second instance was at a Hacking for Defense session at Stanford University. This time, I was working with young college students learning the lean startup methodology to solve DoD problems. Steve Newell, the founder and CEO of BMNT, introduced the Search and Rescue problem statement to the class. He presented it in such an elegant way—I could physically see his inspirational words produce passion on the young data scientists’ faces.

At this moment, I realized that AI developed to save lives would be the catalyst for large-scale DoD adoption.

A few years later, and several AFVentures Small business Innovation Research contracts later, Forrest Underwood introduced me to This was the opportunity I couldn't pass up: the chance to work inside a startup for 8 weeks.

Shift was able to recognize a critical flaw in my strategy to solve problems. How can you get the DoD to adopt industry AI solutions without possessing a well-developed ML pipeline? For this reason, I think Shift matched me with Scale AI.

Scale AI is the best-in-class at providing the entire ML lifestyle to its customers so they can focus on the real, pressing problems at hand. This is exactly what's needed when a DoD customer asks for an AI solution.

It is a misunderstanding of the requirements surrounding ML that can be difficult when attempting field AI solutions. Without a mature ML pipeline, it’s very difficult to have your model perform correctly and continue to improve as the extremely dynamic world evolves.

On the first day on the job, I attended #TransformX, a virtual conference with the CEO Alex Wang, a community of leaders, visionaries, practitioners, and researchers across industries. This was probably one of the best onboarding or familiarization phases that I've experienced in 20 years.

Spending 2 days listening in on thought leaders discussing the art of what's possible in a long forum was extremely insightful.

Throughout the entire fellowship experience, I compared how Scale operates against Air Force Institutions of which I’ve been a part. One observation that stood out to me was the holistically flat organizational rank structure of Scale. After seeing the level of engagement that Alex Wang had during TransformX and the scope of his responsibilities, it was easy to draw parallels between Alex and a Geographic Combatant Commander.

One welcoming attribute of Scale was the inclusion of ambitious ideas. It is understood that the company is at the edge of the AI frontier, and new ideas are required to move forward quickly. This is what has allowed Scale to grow at an incredible rate; it’s also the attribute that the Air Force is trying to re-install into its ranks.

Inside Scale, I had the opportunity to work for the Federal division. The level of talent and prior experience of the team was truly awe-inspiring. I had a false assumption that I would be working with individuals without experience in the Armed Forces. I was surprised when I learned that there was a rich mix of individuals from both the DoD and Silicon Valley.

At first, it felt like I walked into a Special Operations Group with Senior Instructor Pilots, Chief of Intel, and the Ground Forces Commander discussing an Operations Order. Except, everyone was in business casual and there were lead engineers in the conversation.

For Scale to recognize the talent pool coming out of the DoD was exciting to see. The method of mixing operators, strategists, and engineers inside is not common practice for the Air Force. The standard Air Force approach is to silo these different functions on a day-to-day basis.

Even my two cents were considered as the new guy. That says a lot about an organization.

The art of creating what's possible is something that Scale was always discussing with potential customers. This wasn't a "fake it until you make it” model. The conversation was followed up with things that were deployed in that space to demonstrate their success. My gained understanding of what's possible is what I will take back to the Air Force. Thank you Scale.

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