How one army vet is helping fellow soldiers to cope with pain
Bunker Labs and Comcast Partner to Support Veterans
Comcast NBC Universal is partnering with Bunker Labs to develop a groundbreaking series of “Digital Boot Camps” that will be piloted in Seattle to help veterans achieve entrepreneurial success. “Veterans typically have good leadership qualities and the resilience to break through obstacles; both key to being a successful entrepreneur,” says Michael Lui. “The Digital Boot Camps can help fill in the gaps in the entrepreneur’s skillset.”
Michael Lui is no stranger to pain. An endurance athlete with an interest in cycling and cross-country skiing, he has experienced a fair amount of discomfort, to say nothing of bodily wear and tear. A year of active duty with the Army in Iraq added insult to various hip, knee and shoulder injuries.
Yet he knows his suffering is minor compared to that of other military veterans who face ongoing, debilitating pain from injuries suffered during their tours of duty.
“Being in the military is a very physical endeavor,” Lui says. Soldiers carry packs weighing upwards of 80 pounds, traverse miles of unforgiving terrain, and face stressful and unpredictable situations. “When you take the human body through a situation like that, it accelerates degradation in the joints and muscles.”
Lui’s entrepreneurial attitude and an interest in helping himself and others deal with the ongoing effects of injury led him to found G&G Laboratories, a Los Angeles-based company (Lui heads up the company from Seattle) that is researching the use of cannabis to alleviate chronic pain. Its first consumer product, Relevium, is a topical joint and muscle cream that incorporates the natural, non-psychoactive properties of hemp-based CBD. The product is more powerful than other over-the-counter topicals and provides an option for pain relief beyond stronger and potentially addictive prescription drugs like opioids. It’s being tested now and is on track to be launched in January.
“Ours is a very approachable product for people to incorporate into their daily lives,” Lui says. “I think there’s a time and place for more powerful pain-relieving medications like opioids, but they’re not always necessary. We have an opportunity to do better.”
A desire to give back
Lui, 37, is a first-generation Chinese-American. He grew up in North Philadelphia, where his mother worked as a waitress and his father, a mechanic. They came to the U.S. in their 30s and worked hard to build a comfortable life for Lui and his sister. Both were the first in their family to go to college.
Lui had finished his sophomore year at Penn State when he felt the need to give back to the country that had welcomed his family years earlier. He enlisted in the Army at age 19, and was deployed in 2005 as a Civil Affairs specialist during one of flashpoints of the Iraq war, as violent skirmishes were breaking out in the lead up to the country’s first democratic elections. Lui and his fellow soldiers were on the ground for nearly a year in a fairly hostile area south of Baghdad, heading up programs to rebuild schools, repair roads and provide basic aid to the civilian population after major conflicts.
After Lui’s military enlistment ended, he moved to southern California to pursue a master’s degree in Business Administration at UCLA. (He had earned a bachelor’s degree in economics at Penn State before his tour in Iraq.) He had dreams of working for a mission-driven start-up, but MBA in hand, Lui instead went on to work as a researcher for a think tank in Silicon Valley, and was later recruited by Amazon in Seattle as a product manager.
While his career was on a fast track, Lui’s mind kept going back to his desire to start something of his own that could make a real difference in the world. Backed with his business degrees, powered by earlier experience as a management consultant and inspired by the tenacity and resiliency of his fellow soldiers, Lui decided to leave Amazon and try his hand as an entrepreneur. He launched G&G Laboratories in August of 2017.
Finding inspiration from other veterans
With Relevium set to deliver to customers in a few short months — and plans for a new line of creams already in the works — Lui and his team have been working hard to prepare for the launch. He's found considerable support as a member of WeWork Veteran in Residence Powered by Bunker Labs, which is a national initiative sponsored by shared workspace company WeWork and the veteran-led nonprofit Bunker Labs that provides resources, support and camaraderie for veterans starting up their own companies.
“When you’re out there trying to start a business — whether you’re a veteran or not — you face many of the same challenges,” says Todd Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs, National, based in New York City. The Seattle Bunker Labs chapter opened in 2017. “You need mentors, a network, emotional support and a bunch of practical things like access to capital, education and resources. Our vision with Bunker Labs is that we want to be the first place veterans come to start the conversation about how to build a business and build their dreams.”
Lui is one of 10 military veterans taking part in the six-month Veterans in Residence initiative, housed in WeWork’s South Lake Union location. He’s found an eager and receptive group of like-minded entrepreneurs who have helped him test out new ideas and concepts as his fledgling company has gotten started.
“A lot of them, like me, are thinking about how to structure their companies, how to market their services, how to reach their customers,” says Lui.
The fact that the participants are all fellow veterans creates a deeper sense of trust and understanding among the cohort.
“There’s that additional layer of being a vet and having that shared experience,” says Lui. “It lets you get to the heart of the matter and give each other tough feedback.”
Comcast provides vital support
As a nonprofit, Bunker Labs relies heavily on outside sources to help fund their various programs and initiatives, including Veterans in Residence, which help veterans achieve entrepreneurial success. Earlier this month, global telecommunications company Comcast NBC Universal announced that it is partnering with Bunker Labs to develop a groundbreaking series of “Digital Boot Camps” that will be piloted in Seattle.
“To help launch this program, we’re making a special Comcast Foundation grant to fund workshops that will be built into Bunker Labs’ monthly networking series for veteran entrepreneurs,” said David Cohen, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer, Comcast Corporation. “Each of these workshops will be focused on a different topic designed to address digital skills like how to deal with intellectual property, how to leverage social media for a business and online marketing.”
Veterans jumping into new business ownership from the military can often find the new challenge daunting, says Lui.
“Veterans typically have good leadership qualities and the resilience to break through obstacles; both key to being a successful entrepreneur,” he says. “The Digital Boot Camps can help fill in the gaps in the entrepreneur’s skillset.”
In addition to supporting Bunker Labs in its mission to empower military veterans to start and grow businesses, the company also announced that it was expanding its Internet Essentials low-income veterans. The high-speed internet adoption program, first launched five years ago, provides low-cost or free connectivity for Americans in need.
“Data shows that about a third of low-income veterans do not have internet access at home,” says Cohen. “This is simply unacceptable.”
The expansion will enable as many as one million veterans nationally — including nearly 60,000 in the state of Washington — to connect to online resources at home that can help them better navigate the complexities of daily life as civilians.
“That could have been me,” says Lui, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood and attended an elementary school at which 90 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. “I would have benefitted from (the Internet Essentials program), and I know a lot of people in my neighborhood would have, too.”
Comcast has a long history of supporting military veterans. The company was Bunker Labs’ first national corporate sponsor and founded the nonprofit’s Philadelphia location. In Washington, Comcast was the founding sponsor of Bunker Labs’ first chapter in the state, and provided a $100,000 grant to help build out collaborative work space in Seattle.
Since 2010, Comcast has hired more than 15,000 veterans, National Guard and reserve members, and military spouses as employees of the company.
‘This is my way of giving back’
As Lui prepares for the launch of his fledgling company’s first product, he continues to meet regularly with his Veterans in Residence cohort, receiving business advice from fellow entrepreneurs as the company grows. He also reflects on the veterans whose service-related injuries surpass his own.
“I came through my deployment relatively unscathed,” Lui says. “A lot of people didn’t. This is my way of giving back.”