IVCA Profile: Thomas Day, Senior Adviser of ‘The Bunker,’ a Tech Incubator Focused on Military Veteran Entrepreneurs at ‘1871’

IVCA Profile: Thomas Day, Senior Adviser of ‘The Bunker,’ a Tech Incubator Focused on Military Veteran Entrepreneurs at ‘1871’

February 18, 2015

For military veterans, the transition when coming back home from war zones can be difficult, and creating a connection back into business and the work force is vital for starting over. Last year, three ex-military men –  Todd Connor, Brandon Bodor and Thomas Day – created “The Bunker,” an incubator that targets existing tech start ups and budding entrepreneurs within the ranks of veterans.
 
The Bunker’s leaders are Todd Connor (CEO), Brian Bodor (COO) and Senior Advisor Thomas Day. Mr. Day served five years in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, including one year in Iraq. He holds degrees from Penn State University, the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and the Harris School of Public Policy from the University of Chicago. He brings his experiences, education and passion into The Bunker, and talked to the IVCA about the philosophy behind it.
 
IVCA: What was the origin for the idea of ‘The Bunker,’ and what resources helped you to get it off the ground?
 
Thomas Day: Last year, our CEO Todd Connor, approached the leadership of ‘1871’ with the idea for an incubator for veteran-owned businesses. He knew that 1871 would be expanding by 25,000 square feet in October, and Todd thought it was critical that veterans have a piece of that expanding space. The conversation led to bringing on our Chief Operating Officer Brandon Bodor, who brought me on as Senior Advisor.
 
IVCA: As you are a veteran, what is exciting to you about The Bunker, within the idea of getting other veterans on board as entrepreneurs?
 
Day: I personally identify with the veteran community, and the chance to join up with other folks with that background was very appealing to me, along with Todd and Brandon as well. It wasn’t just that, but also it was a chance to be a part of the Chicago start-up community, that makes The Bunker so energizing for everyone who participates.
 
The Chicago tech community has some catching up to do, in comparison to other tech communities in the country – but we’re really getting there – and in making progress through the 1871 community, which we know is growing, The Bunker will be part of that expansion.
 
IVCA: How did the resources of 1871 help The Bunker to both start up and expand its opportunities?
 
Day: 1871 provides a great deal of brand equity for us, because 1871 has become a home for the Chicago tech community. There is a tremendous amount of public support, including from the mayor and governor, both the former and current one. In terms of the investment community, when they come into 1871, they can see the startup scene in Chicago flourishing. The network that 1871 has been able to build, we have been able to leverage. As of today, we have five different companies that have agreed to term sheets, and that has happened in part because of our association with 1871.
 
IVCA: There are many government programs and incentives that aid the veteran. How is the incubator that you advise able to tap into those programs to help specific start ups within The Bunker?
 
Day: There are many different programs within the government that aid veteran-owned businesses. For example, the State of Illinois has a mandate to deliver 3% of any government contract to a veteran-owned business. That mirrors the county guidance, and the federal government. The City of Chicago also has a 5% discount for bids submitted by veteran companies.
 
The struggle is getting veteran businesses officially certified as such. Founders of such businesses have to go through a pretty exhaustive process for certification, and we found that many of them are not willing to go through that process. My understanding is that less than 100 businesses are certified in the State of Illinois. More would take advantage of that if the process were streamlined.
 
IVCA: One of your other goals is to leverage the skills the veteran learned in the military towards their entrepreneurial skills. Can you give an example of how that works?
 
Day: We’ve built The Bunker with an eye toward leveraging the tech skills that veterans have, which would not have come from anywhere else besides their service. For example, GPS technology was really introduced into the commercial space in 2006, when smart phones started entering the market. That technology had roots in the military, and the veterans who were leaving the military during that time period had hands-on use with the early technologies. Veterans were uniquely qualified to help large communications firms – like Motorola – manage the transition, and potentially introduce new products into the market.
 
When I was in Iraq in 2003, we used a program called Blue Force Tracker, which kept track of the forces on the ground in real time. That was novel back then, commonplace now. When it moved into commercial use, veterans could leverage their experience in a way that very few non-veterans could. And we see similar stories of service members building unique tech skills over and over again.
 
IVCA: Often there is a situation in which veterans are under educated, both in actual schooling and in the ways of entrepreneurship. Does The Bunker itself or any of your start-ups connect with that type of veteran and help them get into a direction?
 
Day: Yes, right now we’re developing an internship program where we’re linking in students at National Louis University in the city to come work with our portfolio companies. I was just talking to their Head of Veteran Affairs about connecting student veterans with our companies for work that will also give them credits. These are on-going conversations.
 
To your point about education, there are veterans who are not formally schooled in entrepreneurship, but they have a good idea and we’re certainly open to working with them. We don’t need them to have a degree to come work with us. Having said that, there are a number of founders who come from business schools around here, and that’s the larger point. Veterans are leaving the military in larger numbers now, and entering business schools. The next step is to place them into a culture of entrepreneurship among their peers, and that’s where we come in.
 
IVCA: Among your start-ups in development, which one has been most surprising, either from the source it came from or the idea as it has developed?
 
Day: As I’m speaking to you there is a gentleman to my left named Rod Rakic, who is the co-founder of a company called OpenAirplane. They are making renting an airplane as easy as renting a car. It’s an online mobile platform that rents twin engine airplanes, all over the country, for getting from point A to point B. They serve smaller markets, and offer better pricing than commercial airlines.
 
We have another company called CreditServe, that is run by Ceasar Munoz and Jason Smartt. They went to West Point together, served in Afghanistan together, and launched this business together. Their business is a credit platform for veterans, to obtain loans as an alternative to payday loans, with better terms. They can even prove, via an algorithm they developed, that active service members are a lower risk for loans, and should get a lower interest rate. That’s just a couple of the 19 companies at The Bunker.
 
IVCA: Your mentorship program is so vital to the goals of your incubator. How have you built that program, and who is involved?
 
Day: We have that network of experienced industry leaders. This is done through the associations we’ve developed and through what we call ‘The Council of 100.’ We gather veterans from firms and businesses all over Chicago, and have built a network of connections and ideas.
 
IVCA: What are you seeking from the investors within the Illinois Venture Capital Association, and what do you think makes The Bunker unique in a pitch for funding?
 
Day: What we’re looking to do is provide for the IVCA membership a resource for high growth opportunities that are unique to Chicago. Although we’re building other affiliates, this is made in Chicago, and we will maintain a headquarters here. These high growth opportunities are paired with talented entrepreneurs, and The Bunker is the place you’ll find them.
 
The Chicago market for start-ups have a lot of room for growth. We have two of the five best business schools in the country here, but we often see graduates get their degrees and go somewhere else. Part of that, in my opinion, is the culture of entrepreneurship that we have yet to build into its full potential. Through the support of places like The Bunker and 1871, we can realize the potential of our community. We really need the support of the VC and PE industries, and the membership is welcome to come in and meet the companies we’re working with – they will be very pleased.
 
For more information about The Bunker, click on http://bunkerincubator.com