Like departments and agencies throughout government, the Air Force is tuning its acquisition methods to get closer the speed of technology, and will be holding its first live pitch day in March, with an available funding pool of $40 million.
The Air Force’s Small Business Innovation Research program has issued a call to start-ups and small businesses—those with fewer than 500 employees—to offer pitches on innovative technologies for secure communications, down-range battlefield operations and digital technologies.
“Mind-blowing ideas are being birthed in U.S. start-up companies, but the Pentagon largely misses out on them,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said in a release announcing the pitch day. “We have to do business at the speed of ideas so we can both inspire and accelerate start-up creativity towards national security challenges. The only way we’re going to do that is by making sure partnering with the Air Force is easy and energizing.”
Interested parties have until Feb. 6 to submit pitches to the program, some 60 of which will be invited for an in-person pitch day to be held March 6 in New York City. That day, innovators will get facetime with top Air Force officials who, if they like what they hear, are authorized to sign initial development contracts worth up to $158,000.
“If they get selected, they’ll literally go to the next room and we’ll sign a contract with them, right then and there,” Ryan Helbach, chief intrapreneur at the Air Force Research Lab, told Nextgov. “And we’ll do the initial payment for them to start working.”
If those projects are successful, within five months those companies could be looking at much larger contracts, according to Helbach. While the Air Force will obligate less than $9.5 million for new companies on March 6, a graduating class of small businesses—about 150 companies—that have been working with the department since July will be moving on to phase II, which will include big-dollar contracts to begin prototyping some of these solutions.
The current class of innovators have developed technologies for problems like scheduling satellite usage to space-based monitoring and imaging.
The Air Force has a number of innovation pipelines, Helbach noted, but the upcoming pitch day—the first of its kind for the department—will be a chance for small and non-traditional companies to get in front of decision makers and fast-track the development and procurement process.
“What we’re looking for is that combination of non-traditional—non-defense-oriented companies,” Helbach said. “But, then as well, we do get some of the traditional defense-oriented companies, and we’re OK with that. We recognize the fact that some of these companies are focused solely on defense and they have very good solutions. But we also recognize there’s a lot of [non-traditional] companies developing commercial technologies, applications, solutions.”
While the call is broad—particularly under the umbrella of digital technologies—the Air Force is looking for innovations that will directly support its mission, Helbach said.
“So, your ice cream food truck idea, we’re going to toss that out,” he said. “But if you have a technology where you can control multiple drones all at the same time, yeah, we’re interested in something like that.”
That said, Helbach and the team are looking for out-of-the-box ideas for a wide range of problems.
“This is the beauty of doing a more broad, open call. We’re basically saying, bring us your idea that you’re already proving in a non-defense market … and we’ll spend the time doing the customer discovery,” figuring out who within the Air Force could benefit from that tech, Helbach said.
That’s always been the goal of SBIR and other outreach programs, Helbach said, but they rarely prove effective. The hope is a faster, more streamlined pitch environment, one more reminiscent of the commercial sector, will have better results.
“This isn’t your grandfather’s Air Force,” he said. “We recognize that the technology development and pace of technology development is rapidly accelerating, rapidly changing.”