Lift & Shift: A Non-Profit Startup Bringing Tech to Vets

Lift & Shift Chief Exec Tom Smoot

Startups #nofilter had the pleasure of sitting down with Tom Smoot, Chief Executive of the non-profit startup called the Lift and Shift Foundation.

This amazing organization teaches tech to wounded veterans as an alternative therapy. Veterans receive electronics packages in which they learn how to design devices. Future plans include using 3D printing and autonomous devices. The hope is these veterans turn into engineers or entrepreneurs themselves, but the goal is always their well being. Read the rest of the interview here:



1. Give us the elevator pitch as to what the Lift and Shift Foundation does:

We redirect wounded veterans to a new purpose. That might sound a little vague, but it makes much more sense when you understand that we guide these wounded veterans through developing products focused on science and technology. We’re not providing job-placement, or skills training services. In fact, we don’t believe those services are helpful without healthy veterans.

So, our program is focused on building confidence and developing problem-solving skills through solving these technological problems inherent in designing devices, software and other technological products.

2. Your website says that you are a veteran driven startup non-profit. Can you talk about what qualifies it as a startup. Is it the culture, the tech, or something else startup-related?

Excellent question – and we believe that our organization has been more challenging than a garden-variety startup because we are a non-profit. The culture and environment we’ve immersed ourselves in is the primary driver. Being veterans with little experience in starting any type of company, we decided applying to entrepreneurial incubators would best develop our skills and networks. We found great benefit and camaraderie in both NYU’s Veterans Entrepreneur Lab and the Veterans In Residence program offering jointly by WeWork and Bunker Labs.

3. Have you employed any startup principles to launch the Lift and Shift Foundation, such as establishing an MVP, bootstrapping, or lean startup methodology?

I think this idea may be where we veer most from other startups. Being a non-profit, our models don’t depend on things like seed funding or other funding rounds. One thing we took to strongly came from the incubator at NYU actually. They taught the idea of ditching normal “business plans” and large structural documents for small startups. Instead, we started operating from a simple business model canvas model. It saved us from a tremendous amount of over-planning and too many pages of words we really weren’t ready for yet.

The only hiccup was being a non-profit, but that was easily solved when we broke our canvas in 2 – one for beneficiaries (our veterans) and one for donors (for our fundraising). One we did that, the concepts of who our “market” was or who our “vendors” were became much simpler. For other startups out there, unless you are starting with a very large group already, this is really the way to go.

4. Can you share any data with us? Number of signups?

Being such a small organization, and still waiting on tax-exempt approval from an IRS that seems to do so little, we’ve been limited to serving a capacity of 5 veterans at any one time. We have been planning strategically for scaling and growth to being immediately after passing this immense 501c3 IRS hurdle.

5. Have you qualified for any startup funding, or government loans?

Unfortunately, we don’t qualify for 99% of the funding we’re looking for until the IRS grants our tax-exempt status, which has been pending for several months. Due to the nature of the work we’re doing, in a not-for-profit sense, that tax exemption is a necessary step and probably the largest hurdle for any fledging non-profit organization.

We’ve been blessed to have a large law firm take us on as a pro-bono client, and they’ve done amazing work to assist us with the 501c3 application process. The exemption will be retroactive from our incorporation, which helps to answer the question directly – we’re really relying on a very small budget comprised of the generous and big hearts of individual donors to get things started and show a need when the time comes for larger grant applications. Ideally, long-term, we hope to see us providing these services in-house at military medical centers and VA hospitals, where their financial support would be beneficial whether actual dollars or in-kind donations.

6. What are you most excited about for Lift and Shift’s future?

Wow, personally I guess the excitement is all based on how we change the world. I don’t mean that we are literally going to change every corner of the world. But we are going to change lives – our military members are some of the toughest, most resilient people on the planet. Giving them back the confidence and skills they may feel lacking in after injury is sure to change not just them, but the friends and family that look to them as the powerhouses that they really are. We have no idea how this looks, when our veterans turn from the battlefield to the laboratory, do you think things like cancer stand a chance? That’s what we can barely contain ourselves about.

7. Speaking of the future, do you foresee blockchain technology diverging at all toward Lift and Shift’s tech?

At the core of what we do, I don’t see blockchain involved. But the beauty of a program designed around STEM as an alternative therapy is that someday, some veteran will look at us and say, hey I’m really fascinated by his blockchain thing. I mean hell, I’m fascinated by it myself. When hat day comes, I have the luxury and skills to be able to reply with – Okay, let’s do it. I’ll learn it with you.

8. How about the Uberfication (Uber for X) movement, of service based industries and mobile apps. What are your general thoughts on it, and can you envision your startup utilizing any of the tech?

I have had a few “Uber-esque” ideas, and unfortunately I’m just spread too thin to be able to develop them. I have been hanging on to them for the day one of our veterans looks at some code and asks the right questions about why this or that app haven’t been developed yet. We are completely expecting our veterans to identify, or even solve needs. That’s what happens in science, you find new products, and when our veterans stumble upon them, that’s where we want to foster an entrepreneurial spirit with the appropriate support to be successful.

9. As a startup founder, what is your biggest fear?

Simply failing veterans. Everyone in the military signs a contract to put their lives on the line for the freedoms we have to be here. They deserve our support and my biggest fear is promising that support and not delivering.

10. For fun: What is your go-to website for both regular news and hi-tech news?

Oddly, social media. Many times things trend on Facebook and Twitter before I can keep up with any one news outlet. I skim those headlines and then search for better information from the most reputable sources I can find.

11. For fun: What is the first thing you eat and drink in the morning?

Ooo, wow good question. I’m actually a health nut. I work out and run marathons frequently. I’m also a student of biomedical engineering, so the answer is not a consistent thing. When I read new research involving metabolic discoveries, I’m inclined to try it out for myself. I can say this, I have a sweet tooth and prefer to satisfy that early in the day. So I might have an acai bowl early. But lately I’ve been investigating ketosis and metabolism, so this whole year has been bacon and eggs. But… I do consider coffee a food group.

12. For fun: What website do you go to check when your internet isn’t working?

Ha, that depends on where I am. At home, I don’t bother. I recently called my service provider to complain and told them I wanted it noted in some record somewhere that I talk to them more than my family. Anywhere else, I’d have to say the standard to see what pop up. Then it’s into the OS connection menu.

13. For fun: Any advice for Startups #nofilter, in our quest to become the mecca of startup founder interviews?

Another great question – I actually enjoy the format you’ve provided. While your line of questioning does feel tailored to us specifically, I’m interested in viewing the final product and how you create an entire blog post. Maybe a question or two about other technology such as additive and subtractive manufacturing like CNC and 3D printing would be helpful. We don’t deal with blockchain nearly as much as prototyping.

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