Artificial intelligence has arrived in the defense industry. Through their efforts, the founders of the defense startup Helsing bring outdated warplanes, combat ships and tanks up to date. This approach captures the spirit of the times.
Torsten Reil, Niklas Köhler and Gundbert Scherf started their defense startup Helsing in 2021 with the conviction that software and especially artificial intelligence must play a key role in protecting our democracies. Without them, security and deterrence are no longer possible. The founders describe the technology approach behind their business model as “software-first”. Together with industry and governments, they are working to connect existing and new hardware platforms with advanced AI.
This approach obviously captures the spirit of the times. Just two years after its founding, the AI defense company, as the startup calls itself, has already become Europe’s first defense unicorn. After a financing round of 209 million euros, the defense tech startup reached a valuation of 1.7 billion euros this month, according to information from “Handelsblatt”. According to company information, the US venture capitalist General Catalyst, the Swedish Saab Group as a strategic investor and the venture capital firm La Famiglia have invested in the Munich company.
But what exactly does Helsing do? With the help of software and artificial intelligence, the founders are bringing technologically outdated war aircraft, combat ships and tanks back up to date. In collaboration with the Swedish investor Saab, Helsing is now focusing, for example, on some older Bundeswehr Eurofighter fighter aircraft for electronic transmission by 2028 To make combat operations afloat: AI should help evaluate radar signals faster and better. The defense startup is developing a software platform specifically for this purpose. The Bundeswehr’s special fund is earmarking a total of four billion euros for the modernization of the Eurojet. In the Ukraine war, Helsing says it is already “providing capabilities and technology for frontline operations.”
The defense industry has a bad image among investors
The fact that startups have so far played little role in defense in Germany is due, on the one hand, to the poor image of the defense industry and, on the other hand, to the lengthy public procurement procedures for contracts. In addition, investors still have inhibitions and are hesitant to invest their money in young defense companies in this country.
Many donors even categorically rule out investments in defense startups. Because criticism after such investments often doesn’t take long to arrive. Spotify founder Daniel Elk also felt this after he made a 100 million euro investment in Helsing in 2021. At that time, artists and users of the music platform called for people to cancel their subscriptions using the hashtag #BoycottSpotify.
Today, the Spotify founder feels confirmed in his move: “General Catalyst’s investment and the strategic partnership with Saab Defense strengthen Helsing’s position as the most important AI platform partner in Europe.” He trusts the Helsing team’s ethical, transparent and responsible approach to protecting democratic societies for future generations worldwide.
To date, Helsing employs 220 people
The Bundeswehr’s Cyber Innovation Hub (CIHBw) also considers collaboration between the Bundeswehr and startups to be immensely important. “Due to the Russian attack on Ukraine, we are currently experiencing a sense of urgency for innovation in Germany in almost all areas, including in the defense sector,” CIHBw head Sven Weizenegger told ntv.de last year.
In his experience, it usually takes time for an innovation project to be completed. “This speed is unusual in the public sector and can serve as a role model. Especially at a time when new ideas have to have an impact quickly, this is an important contribution that we can make,” says Weizenegger.
To date, Helsing employs 220 people. The defense startup wants to use the fresh money to further expand its companies in France, Great Britain and Germany and to further invest more in its core technologies.