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Born From the Battlespace: The BTS Origin Story

If you’ve been to the BTS website or read any of our blogs over the last few years, then you’ve probably noticed some themes. Teamwork. Technology. Commitment to the mission. Veteran focus. Innovation.

These values aren’t just a recent development, they’re in our DNA, and in today’s blog post we’d like to share the origin story of BTS- where we came from and where we’re going. As we enter our tenth anniversary year we felt that this was the time to share the story so… here it is.

While it wasn’t a “dark and stormy night,” it was a night that would have ramifications for years to come. It was Spring 2008 and Craig Cummings hosted a dinner with Bo Pyskir, CEO of Lemko (and long-time close friend and West Point classmate of Dan Cummings), and Guy Filippelli, CEO of Berico Technologies. The topic of the dinner was: “Can we develop a cellular network that could be deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan to revolutionize communications on a battlefield?” Cellular networks were not designed to be on the move, especially in a combat zone. Thus, legacy battlefront communications, aka push-to-talk communications, were still the primary means of communication for the military. A mobile, ruggedized, and secure cellular network was a big idea and even bigger challenge.

“I remember that night clearly,” said Co-Founder Craig Cummings, then an Army Intelligence Officer working at the National Security Agency. “The need was so obvious and the solution so imminent that we all could feel the energy of possibility during that meeting.”

That meeting would eventually lead to the birth of BTS, the launch of Praefectus software, and Trojan Swarm, a new Army program to deploy a mobile 3G tactical cellular network to the battlefield for the first-time ever.

But let’s back up for a second.

Who are Craig Cummings and Sean Lane? Glad you asked.

Craig spent 17 years in the Army, most of that time as an Intelligence Officer serving in support of the NSA mission. Craig deployed to Afghanistan with the Joint Special Operations Command where he earned the Bronze Star and witnessed the on-the-ground need for the types of communications solutions that a future company could develop. Sean Lane was an Air Force Intelligence Officer who deployed multiple times to Iraq in support of the NSA, earned the Bronze Star, and was the youngest Air Force Officer ever selected for a prestigious NSA Cryptologic Fellowship. Sean and Craig knew the challenge firsthand—key intelligence data could not be sent back to intelligence hubs for immediate processing because there was not a communications network to support the transmission of that specific data.

Sean knew how to take the “big idea” from a vision to reality. He called the idea “Swarm” and knew exactly what needed to be done from a software and hardware perspective. The hardware would be Lemko’s cellular network and the software would need to be built. That software would be called Praefectus. And Sean recruited Alex Watson, a former IC community close access operator, to be the lead software developer to build it.

Craig Cummings and Sean Lane

Sean and Craig pitched the “Swarm” idea to former Army intelligence colleagues. One of those colleagues was so impressed that he literally took the pitch deck directly to the Army’s Senior Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant General Rick Zahner, who said, “We must do this.” He established a new program called “Trojan Swarm” and tasked BTS to build the network and manage it with Praefectus. Startup BTS now had a big “investor” and big customer with Army Intelligence and then had to deliver on the dream, which, of course, it did, with the help of a lot of people.

A few other early milestones include:
  • 2009: BTS crosses the 25 employee mark
  • 20o9: BTS awarded Last Tactical Mile Contract
  • 2010: BTS wins Baltimore BEST Places to Work Award
  • 2011: US Army purchases PRAEFECTUS as Enterprise Wide Software
Sean Lane showing MG Custer how BTS redefined mobile cellular forensics.

After these initial start-up years, it became clear that BTS was evolving… and entering a new era of growth. From the early days of lean teams and agile tech development, expansion and innovation were on everyone’s minds as mapping out the next few years became more vital. At the top of the list? Determining who will lead the next charge. Dan Cummings, then President of BTS, recalls his role in the early days of BTS.

“I actually came from Construction Management,” recalls Dan of the December 2011 transition to his role at BTS. “For the next three years I ran the company but ultimately we realized that we needed someone with intel chops in the community to help steer the course. That’s why we activated our CEO search, to find the right person to help point the compass and see to our future direction.”

With that vision in mind, BTS would make its next significant move- a move that didn’t actually happen the first go around.

“I was actually approached about serving as CEO twice and turned it down the first time,” recalls now-CEO David Tohn. “I was fairly fresh out of the military and working in the private sector and just didn’t feel equipped to take it on when Craig and Dan Cummings first came to me.” Yet just a few years later the stars aligned, and retired Colonel David Tohn officially signed on to serve as CEO of BTS, a new role to usher in a new chapter for the company as the original founders moved on or shifted their day-to-day capacities.

The next few years would serve as a whirlwind of operational and strategic evolution as Tohn and the leadership team tackled contracts, technologies, operations, forecasting, people, priorities, and passions, to establish the vision of growth that would bring BTS to where it is today.

Yet make no mistake, maturing a fast-moving and highly successful company is never easy. Or quick.

“Right when I signed up and we put the new leadership and ownership structure in place, the world changed around us!  Sequestration hit and there were changes with our primary customers’ requirements.  While it was, frankly, a bit stressful, I am really proud about how we used those changes to fundamentally relook and reimagine BTS and our growth path going forward.  It was hard, but definitely exciting!”

…said Tohn reflecting back on the 2015 timeframe of transition. “While our core identity hadn’t changed, the need to diversify and expand our offerings was clear. I think of it like a sports car. BTS’ next evolution was in the garage and ready to go but we just needed to dust it off and fill up the tires.”

Ribbon Cutting for BTS’ new office move in Jan 2020 to downtown Columbia, MD.

Having changed to a SDVOSB and passing the 60 employee mark, BTS was now running overseas operations and partnering with new Primes on a diverse set of projects that really leveraged BTS’ past qualifications.

Fast forward through a growing leadership team, new strategies for expansion, and a relentless commitment to putting employees first at all costs (yes, above profits), brings us to the BTS of today- which is evolving still.

At the end of the day, the BTS of the past, present, and future still pulls from the same DNA. battlefield technologies for saving lives. Innovation and creative thinking. Start-up mentality. People-first approach. Commitment to the mission. These are things that all of us at BTS, past and present, are proud to have been part of in the creation of the BTS culture.

Another source of pride for BTS is looking back to see what some of our Founders, staff, and employees have gone on to do after their BTS years. Here’s a list of a few notable alumni that have accomplished some pretty amazing things after their time at BTS.

  • Jacinda Shelly: Former VP of Technology, since gone on to help launch Doctor on Demand with Dr. Phil.
  • Alex Watson: Original CTO. After Praefectus, started 426 Labs which was later sold to Amazon.
  • Rachel Charlesworth: Initially hired in an administrative role, she moved to handling social media and now runs her own company.
  • Craig Cummings: While still on the board of BTS, Craig is currently General Partner of Moonshots Capital, a seed-stage venture capital firm that invests in Veteran led start-ups.

While we currently benefit from all the amazing people that have been part of BTS in the past, we’re excited to be tackling a host of new challenges as we become the BTS of the future. What does that future entail?

  • Work: As BTS pursues more work in the intel and DoD spaces, we’re also expanding farther in the commercial sector doing substantive enterprise engineering and analytic work in the private sector.
  • Locations: With a nationwide footprint we are expanding into some key areas in coming years such as Colorado, Texas, etc. Our labs/R&D approach is focused on setting our staff up to do their best work and pursue their biggest ideas.
  • Community: One of our driving values as a Veteran-led organization is to continue supporting the veteran, govcon, and intel communities through giving back, providing career opportunities, and serving our workforce and their families. With this summer’s PTSD fundraiser with Headstrong (more to come on that in 2021), we are continuing to expand our partnerships across the community to build our future together.
  • People: We’re growing. And continuing to grow. We’re looking for amazing people who want to do work that matters and care about their own growth- both professionally and personally. Our culture is the sum of our people and we think our people are pretty amazing. And when our staff feels like they’ve gone as far as they can grow in their roles… we’ll help them find their next step. Even if it’s not with us.

Whew. It’s been a busy ten years. And we’re really just getting started. So how do we summarize it all?

Strong Teams. Saving Lives. Cutting Edge Tech.

This is the heartbeat of what makes BTS tick and will always be part of the recipe for years to come. Here’s the next 10 years.

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