WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has selected 30 startups and small businesses to participate in a live pitch event Nov. 5-6 in San Francisco focused on the space industry. These companies will have an opportunity to win on-the-spot contracts from a pot of money estimated at about $40 million, said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“We’re going to see a lot of great commercial technology that we’re going to be able to apply to military problems,” Roper told SpaceNews in an interview.

Roper has championed live pitch events to help attract nontraditional vendors to do business with the Air Force. On Nov. 7 the Air Force is hosting a Hypersonics Pitch Day in Niceville, Florida, near Eglin Air Force Base.

Space Pitch Day will be an annual event organized by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said Roper. SMC selected a team of junior officers to serve as judges and recommend who should get contracts and for how much. Unlike traditional military source selections that can take weeks or months, at Pitch Day the winners are paid immediately.

“This shows that we have an open door to innovators, that we have funding that doesn’t have strings attached,” said Roper.

Whereas private investors might require equity in companies they fund, the Air Force only is interested in buying a company’s product or service if it determines it is useful to the military, Roper said. He insisted that the Air Force wants to be a customer of the commercial space industry just like any other. “We are not trying to turn them into defense companies,” he said.

The 30 companies were selected from a large pool of vendors that have bid for Small business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts. Roper said all were vetted to make sure they are U.S. owned.

Technologies sought by Air Force

Roper said the Air Force is in the market for a broad range of space technologies. Two areas of particular interest are satellite propulsion and low-cost imaging sensors.

Satellite propulsion is a priority for national security, he said. The Air Force has to be able to reposition satellites “to get away from things that are trying to disable you,” he said.

The Air Force’s interest in electro-optical imaging sensors is not new but Roper said he hopes to see a “breakthrough in price.” The Air Force also wants to target Pitch Day awards to companies that have developed new types of infrared sensors or synthetic aperture radar that have not yet been commercialized, Roper said. “Maybe some defense investment could help spur and mature that technology, and get its price point down.”

Hosting live pitch events is not just about buying products but also about changing the culture of military procurement, said Roper.

Acquisition professionals are motivated by the idea that they buy equipment to serve warfighters, he said, but space buyers also need to think strategically about the implications of investing, or not, in U.S. companies. “Let’s face it, the companies that are going to come pitch to us are not just going to be competing with companies in the U.S. or even companies around the world looking for private investment,” Roper said. “They’re going to be competing against companies that have the full backing of governments, especially China.”

By acquiring products from U.S. startups and entrepreneurs, the Air Force can “ensure that companies innovating in the U.S. are going to be able to go toe to toe with companies that are backed by powerful countries like China,” Roper added.

Investing in early-stage companies will help the Air Force grow its supplier base, said Roper. “If we don’t do this, our industry base will keep getting smaller.” The goal is to develop a cadre of suppliers that are not part of the defense industry but a “dual-use industry base.”

Roper said he wants live pitching to become more mainstream across all Air Force acquisition programs, not just something that is done for special events.

A pitch in front of a live audience can reveal more about a company’s business model and workforce than a traditional written proposal would, he said. “A lot of people thought it would be a gimmick. But our venture capitalist colleagues have told us: ‘You’re crazy to invest in a company you haven’t talked to.’”

The Air Force is discovering that live pitches are “things that we should do in source selections writ large,” said Roper. “In some of our large space programs we have been forcing big primes to come in and pitch.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...