Canadian military veteran on investing in technology for combat and everyday life
As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, Canadian venture capitalist Glenn Cowan is frequently checking in with his close friends on the front lines.
A retired squadron commander from Canada’s special operations forces, Cowan understands the complexities Israel’s hostage rescue forces are navigating.
“I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it,” Cowan, who retired from the military in 2016 after 18 years of service, told BNN Bloomberg in an interview this week.
In fact, his experiences influenced his decision to become a tech investor.
“We never completed a mission where we didn’t innovate internally or rapidly prototype a technology that we used in some way,” Cowan said.
“In my early days as a venture capitalist, I used to say a top special forces unit is like Y Combinator on steroids,” referring to an American start-up accelerator for technology companies.
MILITARY AND COMMERICAL USES
Today, Cowan operates the ONE9 Special Mission fund, which he launched with Shopify Co-Founder Daniel Weinand. Its focus includes dual-use technology, meaning innovations that can be applied in both the military and civilian worlds.
“GPS was a great example,” says Cowan. “We can’t order a pizza now without some sort of military innovation. So we’re finding technologies we can validate within our network in the military and intelligence communities and we scale them commercially.”
TECH’S USE IN COMBAT
Cowan’s unique background has enabled ONE9 to receive top secret security clearances, giving him an early look at technologies that are gaining early traction in military circles.
“When you look at defence investing, people have their own pre-conceived notions and they think it’s guns, bombs, bullets,” he said. “It’s really about things like cloud infrastructure, big data, secure communications, cybersecurity, edge computing … that’s where we’re moving.”
Cowan cites the example of hostage rescues, which are in focus right now because of the Israel-Hamas war.
“There are leading technologies that are helping militaries find hostages, including high-resolution photography, satellites, and signals intelligence.”
Cowan is also monitoring how Israeli soldiers will navigate the labyrinth of tunnels under Gaza.
“Those tunnels are going to be dealt with entirely from a technological perspective. And a really interesting dual-use case that we would look at would be: how do we use drones and robots in GPS-denied environments to accurately navigate narrow tight passages?”
He says those kinds of technologies can also be used in the mining sector to help, for example, find gold deposits.
CANADA’S START-UP LANDSCAPE
While Cowan keeps close tabs on Canada’s start-up scene, his investing mandate takes him beyond the Canadian border.
But he’s hoping to help change that, not to mention work more closely with government partners and Canada’s allies to ensure the technology being developed here stays in safe hands.
“Canada has amazing technology hubs and we have amazing talent, but in relation to our Five Eyes allies, we are an earlier-stage market when it comes to developing dual-use technologies,” he said.
“We need to keep adversarial nation states from coming into Canada and acquiring those companies and exporting the IP from some of our best and brightest.”