COLORADO SPRINGS — Winners of Defense Department small business innovation research (SBIR) contracts will have a chance to compete for up to $40 million the Air Force will award this fall in a live pitch event in Los Angeles focused on space technology.
“What the Air Force wants is for companies who are innovating in space to come to us first because we’ll be able to get you paid quickly,” Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told Space News April 10 at the 35th Space Symposium.
The upcoming “Space Pitch Day” would be the Air Force’s second live pitch event following the inaugural event last month in New York where, in a single day, 51 small businesses were awarded $8 million worth for contracts and were paid instantly by swiping a government credit card.
Now the Air Force wants to narrow the focus to space, and it is especially interested in technologies “that we didn’t even know we needed,” Roper said. A company can deliver a winning pitch “and 15 minutes later they’re not just on contract, they actually have money in their accounts,” he said. “And we’re not going to ask for equity in their company. So we hope we can be part of this space innovation ecosystem in the commercial sector.”
Unlike the New York event, the businesses that will be invited to the Space Pitch Day are only those that submitted proposals under the SBIR 19.2 Broad Area Announcement that closed Feb. 6 and won SBIR Phase 1 contracts. They will present their ideas live to a team of Air Force experts, commercial investors and defense executives for an opportunity to compete for Phase 2 awards and get paid on the spot. By contrast, the average timeline to award an SBIR contract is 180 days. The Air Force awards about $660 million a year in SBIR contracts.
For the Space Pitch Day, candidates will be matched up with military space operators and they will deliver a joint presentation to Air Force program executive officers. The idea is to give PEOs a chance to hear about the military utility of the technologies.
“I think the Space Pitch Day will likely be similar in scale to the one in New York,” Roper said. “We’ll have $30 to $40 million available.”
Air Force officials find live pitches can be more effective than evaluating someone’s proposal on paper. “You understand their idea, you want to buy their idea, you want to buy the team that’s producing it,” Roper said. “That was a big lesson that we learned. In the world of investment, which is new for us in the Air Force, you can’t buy it just on paper. You’ve got to believe in their expertise, their determination and energy,” said Roper. “We want them to have at a minimum a viable product that we can put in an operator’s hands,” he said. “We’ll have money available to put them on contract immediately.”
Live pitches may not work for everything, Roper said, but “early on in the idea phase, I’m absolutely convinced this is the way we need to do business.”
The Air Force is hoping candidates cover a wide range of space technologies, including satellites and small rockets. Cheaper, more responsive launch vehicles are “really exciting,” Roper said. “I think that it’s going to really change the game for us in low Earth orbit. We want satellite makers that are working on new things, new technologies. We want people that are working in digital technologies, artificial intelligence,” he said. “What are we going to do with all of the data coming off of all those satellites? We need to plan for that.”
Space is an environment where artificial intelligence “should do really well,” Roper said. “It’s a very predictable environment and we want algorithms to tell us if something changes. So I think this is going to be a great area to get AI companies in and help our operators looking at things when they’ve changed.”
Companies also are encouraged to pitch unconventional space technologies and ideas that the Air Force may not have thought about. “Maybe even companies that don’t think of their technology as applying to space. We want you to take a risk and come tell us about it,” Roper said. “I would like a company that has a great idea to think ‘I’m going to definitely pitch it to the Air Force first because I’ve got nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain.’”