Days after winning the November election, Joe Biden announced the names of those staffing his transition. Big Tech landed prominent spots. Among the hundreds of personnel on the agency review teams serving the president-elect, there was one from Uber, two from Amazon, and one from Google. And then there were two people from Rebellion Defense, a shadowy defense startup.
The announcement sent Washington insiders scrambling to look up the company. No major defense contractors appeared on the list. “It’s sure odd that a year-old startup like Rebellion winds up with two employees serving on a presidential transition team,” Ken Glueck, the executive vice president of the tech company Oracle, told me.
What is Rebellion Defense? With a Star Wars allusion as its name, this firm is not your typical contractor. Rebellion launched in the summer of 2019 to craft artificial-intelligence (AI) software for the defense industry. Trade publications gushed about how innovative it was. It quickly raised $63 million, with the conspicuous backing of its board member Eric Schmidt. Schmidt is best known as the former CEO of Google, but he’s also a billionaire investor and an influential consultant to key government bodies.
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Schmidt serves as chairman of an advisory board to the White House and Congress called the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. From official positions, he has advocated for the Defense Department and intelligence agencies to adopt more machine-learning technology. Meanwhile, as a venture capitalist, he has invested millions of dollars in more than a half-dozen national-security startups that sell those very technologies back to the government.
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