In 2010, while Jon Ellsworth spent most of his time drilling combat tactics and dodging mortar fire, Carlyn Dougherty roamed the halls of her tree-lined New England boarding school. Jon is from a large working-class family in Northern California. Carlyn’s small family lives in an upscale Connecticut town just a commuter-train ride from New York City. Jon served three tours in Afghanistan. Carlyn rowed crew and joined the chess club.

But their wildly different backgrounds and life experiences haven’t stopped them from creating something amazing together. In fact, their differences are why amazing happened. 

Together with three other students from Columbia University’s computer science program, they are taking what started as a class project and turning it into technology that can – and will – save lives. “We want to solve problems around communication when triaging patients on the battlefield, particularly in mass casualty situations,” Carlyn explains. Their app, named CasTAC (Casualty Track and Communicate), lives on Android devices soldiers already carry and allows medics treating wounded soldiers to record and exchange notes about treatment using voice detection and speech recognition.

This is a massive step forward from hand-written notes fastened to fatigues with safety pins – a method that is more World War II than World Wide Web, but still prevalent today. Though not yet fully in production, CasTAC already has the attention of both the U.S. military and Silicon Valley investors. 

How battlefield communications came to be Jon and Carlyn’s mission, and how they’re pursuing it, is a story all its own.

Focusing on the mission

In the fall of 2017, Jon and Carlyn both enrolled in a course called “Hacking for Defense.” It takes some of the U.S. military and intelligence community’s most intractable problems and lets enterprising students take a crack at solving them.

Carlyn and Jon were placed on an interdisciplinary team with three other students. Between the five of them, three had military experience and two were civilians. The challenge given to them was a big one: improve wartime communications for troops on the ground. Their professors referred to it as “Alexa on the battlefield.”

The veterans in the group knew only too well the problems that came with communicating by radio. “You get all kinds of interference,” Jon says. “Things are repeated often, misinformation comes through all the time. They wanted something better than that.” Despite what their professors called it, this was part of a much larger issue for the military and, ultimately, too large a problem for this small team to solve alone. But what if they could improve the way information was shared about soldiers who were hurt? Could they make a difference there?

Jon and the other veterans had watched as soldiers scrambled to get their wounded colleagues the medical care they needed, or to call in a medevac helicopter – all while taking enemy fire. That’s when soldiers really need communication tools that work. And they often don’t.

Carlyn could only imagine what Jon and the others had seen first-hand. “Jon and I understood the gravity differently from the beginning,” she says. “This is his experience, at a level that will never impact me the same way. He can think about his friends that are still in the service or people he knew who were wounded. I get it second-hand.” Knowing their assignment, and that some of her team had combat experience, it’s no surprise Carlyn felt intimidated. She describes her first impression of Jon like this: “Pretty bad-ass; a big dude.” But quickly adds, “But he’s also a teddy bear.”

The first time I met Carlyn, I thought she’d be pretty naive and not know much about what was going on, or the world in general

For his part, Jon knew immediately he and the other vets would have to be patient as they brought their civilian teammates up to speed. “The first time I met Carlyn, I thought she’d be pretty naive and not know much about what was going on, or the world in general,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Alright, you’re the youngest one here by far. You’re just a regular college student.'”

Enlisting help

Even as technology has transformed the world, medics taking care of grievously wounded soldiers on the battlefield still communicate using a pen-and-paper system. In these frantic situations, there’s no time to fuss with a radio that might not function. “These are people who have very limited bandwidth to spend on things other than treating patients,” Carlyn says. “We were told that if we want to change their workflow, it had better be a system that improves outcomes for patients.”

Figuring out what a better workflow might look like required deep contextual knowledge that even the veterans in the group didn’t have. Over the course of the semester, Jon, Carlyn, and team interviewed military personnel ranging from junior medics to a four-star admiral.

“We reached out to everyone we could think of: veterans, active duty soldiers, officers, pilots, flight surgeons… anybody who knew this problem and could help us solve it,” Jon recalls. Adds Carlyn, “That meant we got a very broad perspective on what communication looked like, and from there, a fairly broad perspective on when communication fails.”

Thanks to the candor of more than 150 interviewees, the team landed on a strategy that was valuable on the battlefield and within their ability to implement. For Jon, it resonated with his own experience as an Army Ranger. “We thought, okay, the soldiers carry a cell phone. They use a mesh network system to communicate. So why not make use of that?”

I was unprepared for the stone-faced, shoulders back, no-emotion looks as I was presenting

Their first moment of truth came when they visited a military installation to present their prototype and gather feedback. Carlyn, a seasoned public speaker thanks to a stint on her high school’s debate team, couldn’t read how the talk was going over with the military members in attendance that day.

“I was unprepared for the stone-faced, shoulders back, no-emotion looks as I was presenting,” she says. “I had never had that experience before. I was like, ‘They hate it. I don’t even know why we’re here. Clearly, no one is interested in our idea. We’re just kids working on a project and they’re looking at us like we’re crazy.’ The relaxed pose for that group of people was the stiffest thing I had ever seen.”

But the moment the team were done presenting their final slide, hands shot into the air. People were excited. “The reaction was really positive, especially from the younger medics who agreed with a lot of the concerns we had,” she says. “We got a lot of phone numbers for people to talk to, and a ton of feedback.”

“We started thinking it could be real,” Jon remembers. “As we continued to talk to them about this problem and what they wanted, we began to realize this is something we could actually build.”

There was just one problem: by then, the semester-long course was ending and they had barely begun the technical work. But their military contacts urged them to keep at it. The project was simply too important to drop because of an academic calendar.

“We had put our heart and soul into this project and really fell in love with it,” Carlyn explains. “I don’t think any of us were ready to pass it off like, ‘We got an A. The class is over, I guess we can just let it go now.'” So they kept working on it, eventually incorporating as a company called Clion.

Finding strength in their differences

Although their work today is more focused on fine-tuning CasTAC and pitching it to potential customers and investors (they’ve met with U.S. Special Operations, members of Congress, and a number of venture capital firms), they still rely on the diversity of their backgrounds and skill-sets to make the product stronger. “I look at life through the lens of a veteran,” says Jon, “but the people I work with don’t have that same view, and the co-mingling of ideas and perspectives has helped us solve this problem from a bunch of different angles.”

But it took time to get to that point. “Our team came together through working a lot – whether it was doing interviews, building presentation decks, or brainstorming,” he recalls. “As time went on, we realized this class project had real-world implications, which got us really excited. It brought us together as a group, as well.” 

Along the way, they developed the kind of mutual respect and trust that allowed each person on the team to speak their mind. “Being able to tell somebody, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea, but it’s just not going to work’ really allowed us to build a better product. Something that people would actually use, instead of just a novelty,” Jon notes.

Along the way, they developed the kind of mutual respect and trust that allowed each person on the team to speak their mind

Even with all the twist and turns in their journey so far, they haven’t lost their singular sense of purpose. Says Jon, “If I could save the lives of guys I know from my old unit who are still in? That would be awesome.”

Carlyn agrees. “Having a mission-driven organization and a mission-driven product means the frustrations that are natural in both development and working with a team tend to feel insignificant. And that’s a gift,” she says.

“The way we’ve become partners and colleagues, but also friends, has become pretty important to me,” she adds. “I think it’s made us better as a team to not just respect each other’s skills, but also to actually care about one another. I would hope if I were to ever start a company again with a group of people, that I would care about them and respect them as much as I do this team.”

Joining forces...