Stark Industries and Lightsabers: The Sci-fi That Inspired a Billion Dollar Defense Company

When you hear “billion dollar defense company,” you probably conjure up certain images in your mind: Business people in suits sitting around a boardroom table… Conservative, measured approaches to new tech… Lots of red tape…

You probably don’t think of comic books and fast food. But here we are in 2020 — Silicon Valley entrepreneurs run the world.

On First Contact, Trae Stephens tells Laurie Segall about a meeting where he, Palmer Luckey, and Anduril’s other co-founders formulated the idea for a real-life defense company modeled after Iron Man.

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

I think we can probably press pause on the lightsaber…

Trae Stephens: I basically had this conversation with [co-founder Palmer Luckey] where I said, “You know what the United States really needs is Stark Industries from the Iron Man movies.” We need a company that is going to be well-capitalized, that will build products for the defense community, not requirements programs.

…[At the meeting] there was Chick-fil-A. I will say that I’m allergic to chicken. Palmer knew that I was allergic to chicken and Nicole, Palmer’s now wife/then girlfriend, went to Taco Bell and bought an entire bag full of bean burritos. And so everyone’s eating chicken and I’m sitting there just like crushing bean burritos.

Laurie Segall: Good to know you guys kept it classy.

Trae Stephens: Yeah. Palmer is an avid fast food aficionado. …And we kind of just went through this whole plan, like what would Stark Industries look like?

Laurie Segall: I love that you keep going back to Iron Man. I mean, when we’re thinking about the future of defense technology, how we’re gonna protect ourselves from like Russia and China. Like it comes down to Chick-fil-A, bean burritos, Iron Man, and a guy who likes to be barefoot. And I don’t mean this in a snarky way.

Trae Stephens: …You know, I think this is one of the things that most people don’t realize about the defense community over really like the last hundred years, is that these moments, these kind of crucial moments in our history, have been defined by founders, by entrepreneurs. Maybe they worked for the government, maybe they didn’t. But you had Benny Shriver with ICBMs, you had Kelly Johnson with the U-2, the SR 71, the F-104. You had Admiral Rickover with the nuclear navy. You had Howard Hughes and all the things that he did in the aviation space. And we’ve kind of gotten into this weird quasi-communist state where no one’s actually responsible for anything. Like there are no founders. It’s just bureaucracy that’s running all of these multi, multi, multi, hundreds of billion dollar defense programs. And so I think the usage of Stark Industries as the analogy is actually really powerful because it says Tony Stark, the person, is actually the company.

Laurie Segall: …Has there been something at Anduril that kinda got left on the cutting room table? Like you just decided, we’re not building this?

Trae Stephens: None for ethical reasons because we haven’t really edged into any of these crazy territories yet. There are some that have been left on the cutting table because they didn’t work like we thought they should and weren’t worth pursuing. We’ve had some crazy ideas around like real-life lightsabers and stuff like that. And it turns out that some of these things, the science just isn’t ready yet…

Laurie Segall: …My mind is blown a little bit.

Trae Stephens: Well, I think we can probably press pause on the lightsaber. I don’t think that’s gonna happen any time soon.

Laurie Segall: How far did you get?

Trae Stephens: It got far enough that Palmer accidentally cut himself and had to get medical care. So that is a question for Palmer.

Laurie Segall: What did you guys build?

Trae Stephens: I don’t understand the exact physics of what happened but needless to say, we are no longer building it. By the way, that would have been to use for breaching. So instead of putting C4 on doors, using a plasma cutter essentially to get into denied environments.

Laurie Segall: Oh, man! So not like actually hand-to-hand combat?

Trae Stephens: No, no, no, no, not hand-to-hand combat.