Op-ed | DoD partnerships with startups drive innovation in space technology
It goes without saying that the federal government has a reputation for presenting startups with some formidable barriers to entry when it comes to securing government contracts.
We know those barriers exist for a reason – they increase compliance, reduce risk and ensure taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly. But they can have the adverse effect of slowing the adoption of innovation within the government system.
This is a significant challenge for the armed forces, as operations across the Department of Defense can benefit from technological advances being made by small and more agile private-sector companies that can innovate faster than their defense contractor counterparts.
In order to tap into these advances, over the years the government has forged a number of programs designed to help startups better access the bureaucracy that underpins the military-industrial complex.
These started in 1982 with the National Science Foundation’s institution of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which continues to serve its original purpose: providing small businesses with a better chance to compete for government contracts by helping them develop their technology in line with the government’s R&D needs, as well as commercialize it for broader application.
The value of SBIR is indisputable. It’s helped accelerate the growth of companies such as Qualcomm and Symantec and has been copied by 17 countries around the world.
But studies show that many startups continue to believe that forging a relationship with the federal government is just too daunting.
In recent years, several defense organizations have adopted a new approach to bringing the government and startups together. These catalysts for innovation, which have primarily taken the form of incubators, accelerators and pitch days, are changing the speed with which the military sources solutions to its most pressing problems while enabling startups to gain faster, more meaningful access to the system.
Unlike the original SBIR process, which generally outlines a government need through a traditional request for proposals – requiring a proposal that falls within strict parameters – the new programs enable more direct engagement between the government and startups and allow for technological iteration as that relationship develops.
These programs give startups an opportunity to interface directly with government decision makers to validate a solution and evolve the technology as needed to ensure a greater product-mission fit or discover a new use. Startups can pitch their solutions directly to this audience for the opportunity to win a government contract on the spot.
In the process they also help startups build networks across the Department of Defense and military branches, so that undertaking the next government opportunity becomes at least somewhat easier.
An example of how the government has successfully worked with a startup is the partnership with CrowdAI, a company that developed a platform to enable users to create customized deep learning algorithms to detect, track and analyze almost any type of imagery.
A 2016 graduate of YCombinator, the company has been able to secure a number of government contracts.
CrowdAI’s history with the Air Force began in October 2018 when it participated in the inaugural cohort of the Air Force Research Lab’s new Hyperspace Challenge, which was designed to strengthen government-startup collaborations in space technology.
CrowdAI won the program’s first pitch competition. The Hyperspace Challenge’s original “problem statement” — issued by the Air Force’s Civil Engineer Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington — originally sought only satellite solutions to detect deterioration in military bases. But the government contracts the company has secured to date through the accelerator are geared at leveraging a wide variety of geospatial data to tackle this problem.
“The new programs are iterative in a way that other programs just haven’t been,” said Cliff Massey, CrowdAI’s head of business operations and strategy.
New breed of accelerator programs
The commercial market is now driving almost all innovation in space technology, so it only makes sense for the government to pivot its practices to more quickly adopt the best from the market.
- Air Force Accelerators/Incubators: These focus on identifying and fostering space technology for Air Force and other DoD agency applications.
- xTechSearch: Also launched in 2018, this Army pitch competition consists of four phases that culminate in proof-of-concept demonstrations and a $250,000 grand prize.
- Air Force Pitch Days: Since launching in 2019, the Air Force has continued to hold pitch days around the country, awarding $131 million in 2019 and extending the days to focus on themes ranging from digital engineering, quantum physics and artificial intelligence.
- NASAiTech: In this four-day forum, 10 startups spend time with NASA’s chief technologists, as well as investors and industry leaders. Three winners are selected to receive ongoing feedback, guidance and introductions.
- AFWERX Challenge: As the accelerator component of the Air Force’s AFWERX program, challenges are offered in a range of special topics, including emerging tech, military life and family, and space.
- Space Force Pitch Day: A new initiative by the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, startups with promising technology are invited to pitch their ideas to a team of Air and Space Force experts, commercial investors and defense partners for an opportunity to compete for an “on the spot” contract award.
Gabriel Mounce is director of the Space Force accelerator program and the technology commercialization and economic development lead for the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Department of the Air Force.