The Army’s xTechSearch program leverages its success to find the innovation the Army needs—and reveals good old American ingenuity.
by Christopher J. Semancik
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States rapidly, and with little time for Americans to prepare for what we were about to face. Instantly, there were equipment shortages all over the nation, ranging from personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gowns, masks, and gloves to shortages on complex medical devices like ventilators.
The COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity to demonstrate the speed of discovery to potential acquisition that can keep up with emerging and changing Army operational requirements that the xTechSearch program offers the Army.
On April 5, the Army put out the call for ideas to respond to a problem statement for a low-cost, easily manufactured, deployable ventilator technology that could operate in austere and rural environments. The Army was searching for a solution that could be used in the long term, to not only support the nation in times of need but also to continue supporting warfighters and medics during field operations.
SPEED TO CONTRACT
In just 10 days, 150 American companies, academic institutions and individuals submitted concepts for review by Army scientists and engineers, healthcare clinicians and medical doctors. The evaluation criteria included mission requirements, technical viability, regulatory burden and the ability to deliver 10,000 functional units at an enhanced production speed. Just 16 days after the U.S. Army acquisition executive launched the Expeditionary Technology (xTech) COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge, a panel of Army judges made its initial recommendations for potential limited acquisition. The competition facilitates access to other-transaction authority contract vehicles that enable delivery of prototypes for additional government testing.
At the conclusion of the COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge, which ran for just 20 days, the xTech program received and processed more than 200 technology submissions resulting in 11 companies being invited for virtual pitches. Five of those companies were selected as winners, each receiving a $100,000 cash prize. The winners quickly entered into potential contract negotiations with the Army, representing a substantial cost savings and demonstrating speed and flexibility to respond to emerging requirements.
XTech worked, at speed, to seek and locate novel dual-use technology and evaluate it, just as it was envisioned. The COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge accomplished its technological review in less than a month, proving that American technology was available to quickly meet the requirement and that the xTech program’s format could respond quickly to Army operational needs.
Dr. Bruce D. Jette, the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA(ALT)), in a recent interview hosted by the Army xTechSearch Accelerator, explained how he conceived of the Army prize competition known as xTechSearch. “The idea was, how do I open a door for people with great ideas and great opportunities to come and participate in sharing their ideas,” he said. ”Congress was good enough to give us what is called ‘contest authority,’” and Jette used that to generate the xTechSearch. “My objective was to generate a mechanism by which people could bring their ideas forward, get them seen by the right people [and] get feedback by the right people.” Jette noted that small businesses and startups are often at the leading edge of scientific inquiry and technology development, but are often reticent to engage with the Department of Defense.
So what makes xTech so successful? According to Josh Ledgard, the founder of kickofflabs.com, a contest-hosting website oriented to promoting small businesses, there are strong psychological factors associated with opportunities that are free, urgent and scarce, which bring a broad appeal to contests and drive participation.
Army prize competitions are executed under Title 10 United States Code (USC) Section 2374a or Title 15 USC Section 3719. The psychological drivers of free, urgent and scarce are designed into the xTechSearch construct. Submission deadlines and juried elimination events for non-dilutive seed money provide the “urgent” and “scarce.” The maximum amount that the grand prize winner can receive through all four phases is $385,000. (Non-dilutive seed money enables the business to receive money for its intellectual property without sacrificing a portion of its ownership.)
Besides the cash, participants gain access to a host of additional benefits, including detailed product and business-model feedback from Army subject matter experts, xTech Accelerator team events and Army-sponsored networking opportunities at national level land warfare conferences. In addition, the winner may gain access to government labs and testing facilities through cooperative research and development agreements with the Army.
FREE BUT PRICELESS
The cost of entry? A concept white paper outlining the technology, potential impacts, scientific viability and dual-use applications. Although there is no fee to send in the white paper, as Jette observed about tech entrepreneurs, “…what they have in their head is their resource, what they have in their head is their capital value…,” and the concept paper represents that capital investment in the competition.
Since its inception in April 2018, the Army xTechSearch program has evaluated more than 1,500 dual-use technologies for potential application to Army modernization priorities. Currently running its fifth open-topic iteration, which is set to conclude in the spring of 2021, xTechSearch has evolved into an overarching program including both open-topic and directed-topic competitions to tackle specific problems; an accelerator program that seeks to develop xTech competitors into viable companies; and an expanding set of partners across the Army, the Department of Defense and the world.
Army partners that comprise the Army innovation ecosystem, and that are actively engaged in the xTechSearch program, include Army Futures Command (AFC) and its constellation of laboratories and testing facilities, the Army Applications Lab, the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technology Office (RCCTO), the 75th Innovation Command (an Army Reserve component), the Army Corps of Engineers and Army Materiel Command (AMC). These organizations provide the xTechSearch program with a powerful resource of experts to power the prize competitions’ ability to rapidly evaluate science and technology proposals from a broad spectrum of disciplines across all phases of the acquisition life cycle.
As opposed to the current 15-year concept-to-fielding process, the prize competition authority model provides the Army with a rapid alternative means to discover and potentially acquire novel dual-use science and technology from virtually any source, on a compressed schedule.
The technology-readiness level (TRL) scale is one of the metrics that xTech judges use to review and classify the maturity of proposed technology. The scale runs from 1 to 9, with TRL 1 representing the lowest level of readiness dealing with the observation and reporting of basic principles through a paper study that may contain a proposal for application. TRL 9, on the other end of the scale, would be applied to technology that can be tested and evaluated under actual field conditions, with hardened prototypes ready to transition to full production.
As an example, in recent xTechSearch phase II technology pitches, 16 of the 20 companies selected offered examples of desired technological solutions to Army problems that the panel of Army judges rated as TRL 5 or above, meaning that the solutions were capable of demonstrating their value. Thus, in the space of a few months and, at minimal cost to the Army, the xTech process documented specific technology that answered the problem statement of a sufficient maturity to move along to the prototype and testing phase.
Problem statements developed by experts, standardized review metrics, and a systematized and automated judging structure enable xTech judges to proceed at a high level of speed and fidelity, resulting in accelerated decision making.
The xTech program has proven to be a popular and flexible platform for technology scouting. The open topic format has brought forward technologies as diverse as a more efficient rocket motor propellant to a handheld wall-penetrating radar, to topic specific competitions such as the xTechSearch COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge. When faced with the cancelation of in-person programs because of COVID-19, the xTechSearch team seamlessly transitioned to virtual events, a switch that has served to extend opportunities of accessibility and participation across all the associated stakeholders.
Moving to a virtual format has further lowered event overhead costs and has increased the speed and frequency at which contest iterations can be held. “I was amazed at how interactive the virtual competition was and how much dialogue we could have on the technology in ten minutes,” said Keith Jadus, director for the Ground Maneuver/Next Generation Combat Vehicle portfolio in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army (DASA) for Research and Technology (R&T) after participating in a recent xTech virtual event.
Even before it initiated the Ventilator Challenge, AFC was exploring how to leverage the xTechSearch program to meet immediate Army needs. AFC’s Innovation Combine which took place from April 15 to July 15, expanded the topic-driven prize competition to include two very specific topics open to all business types with an option to join a consortium that has an existing other-transaction authority agreement at the end of the competition. All finalists were eligible for other-transaction authority agreement awards through the National Advanced Mobility Consortium. Two winners were selected for awards during the Innovation Combine event and the remaining six companies have their proposals placed in the “Ground Vehicle System other-transaction authority electronic basket” that makes them eligible for an award until June 17, 2023.
The wording and construction of the two Innovation Combine topics and problem statements are instructive to what makes a topic-driven competition work efficiently:
Topic A: Scalable power and energy solutions
Problem Statement A: The Army has a need for lighter, energy dense, safe, rechargeable batteries that can be demonstrated at the battery prototype level of 400 watt hours per kilogram (Whr/kg) (cell level 500Whr/kg), or a small form-factor power-generation system that could include fuel cells or small engine technologies to recharge batteries while on the move, that is light weight (<5-6 lbs. including fuel).
Topic B: Novel materials for weight reduction and survivability
Problem Statement B: For military ground vehicle structures, ballistic and blast-load requirements often trump structural requirements, leading to very thick structures. Contrary to aerostructures, for thick ground vehicle structures, materials with high strength and elongation capabilities are better than those with ultra-high stiffness. To enable lightweight military ground vehicles, there is a need for affordable materials that are resilient to high loading rate events and are able to absorb large amounts of energy without breaking.
“The broad problem statement from AFC gave enough leeway for both battery and generator technologies to be submitted,” said Dr. Imee G. Smith, director (A) of the Soldier and Squad Science and Technology portfolio for ODASA R&T, and one of the judges for the Innovation Combine. “This gave us, as judges, the opportunity to evaluate the potential impacts of each type of technology for a Soldier’s needs without constraining us to a single use case.” Keith Jadus, another Innovation Combine judge, agreed, noting that “…the AFC problem statement to reduce the weight of ground vehicles was very relevant and I saw a lot of opportunity to do this in the four companies that I reviewed.”
The problem statements of the Innovation Combine and the COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge demonstrate the potential of how the xTechSearch program can change the acquisition process. “If you go to classic acquisition documentation, it talks about requirements. In the past then, we were very specific about other aspects of whatever we are asking for… What we are trying to do now is leverage modern technology in a more reasonable manner,” Jette said, when commenting on the changing Army requirements documents. “We are not going to put a requirement in for phase one. We are going to put in a characteristic set for phase one—we are putting book ends—what you do between the book ends, we open the door, we give you the flexibility.” As with the COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge and the Innovation Combine, the problem statements did not constrain innovators into one technology solution. This results in choice in Army acquisition to meet specific needs.
This fall will see the completion of xTech 3 and xTech 4. XTech 5 will be in Phase III semifinals.
As the xTech program evolves, the Army innovation ecosystem that contributes to the program keeps exploring pathways to achieve further strategic alignments with other Army programs and authorities to fulfill a complete competition-driven technology discovery to acquisition lifecycle.
During the summer of 2020, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command rearranged the traditional phases of the xTechSearch program and announced the Brain Operant Learning Technologies (BOLT) prize. The xTech BOLT prize is a research topic that is focused on exploring neural learning pathways, seeking to improve military training outcomes through optimal memory retention and access. The prize competition benefits from all the procedural developments to the xTech program to date, and starts with a 60-day white paper challenge to select up to 10 competitors for an innovative excellence award of $10,000. As many as five of those finalists will go to Phase II, with a year to refine their research and compete for core research funding and the final prize of $500,000. Phase I and Phase II will be announced in November and December of 2020, with the finalists selected in 2021. The xTech BOLT prize topic proves the program is flexible and boundless, seamlessly moving from research to advanced technology to rapid prototype acquisition.
For more information on the Army’s xTechSearch program, visit https://www.arl.army.mil/xtechsearch.
CHRISTOPHER J. SEMANCIK is an information liaison specialist with the Laboratory Management Directorate, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, Research and Technology, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and holds a master’s degree in Strategic Studies.
These are the selected winners of the xTech COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge, Part 2: Prototype Proposals.
by Jess Stillman
AIRMID CRITICAL CARE PRODUCTS, INC.
This company created a non-Ambu bag convertible ventilator that is a volume-controlled resuscitation device with reliable safety features and dual-mode operational capability for versatility of use in environments requiring hand-operated manual use or mechanized automated use. (Ambu is a ventilator-maker not involved in the competition that “developed the world’s first self-inflating resuscitator, that was designed for manual ventilation,” according to its website. Their ventilators use a bag known as an Ambu bag.)
SISU is an industrial robotics company that developed an Ambu-bag solution known as the Austin P51 emergency ventilator. The ventilator solution is built into a rugged Pelican case and squeezes a standard Ambu bag connected to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved standard circuit with a positive end-expiratory pressure valve and high-efficiency particulate air filter. The solution was developed in collaboration with clinical specialists at Mount Sinai and Baylor University hospitals and provides comprehensive capabilities for Ambu-bag solution, while considering Army-specific needs for forward-deployed operations.
This company developed a low-cost automatic ventilator called the Spiro Wave. It is compatible with the standard Ambu and other ventilator bags used in clinical settings. The device features a suite of software, sensors and safety technologies to enable clinicians to monitor and adjust critical parameters.
In collaboration with Colorado State University, Woodward Inc. developed a unique technical solution leveraging high performance automotive components to deliver superior ventilator capability. The Aether 100 emergency ventilator is a fully digital solution utilizing high-speed, high-flow gaseous fuel injectors to shape inhalation flow to the patient. The components of the solution are ruggedized and integrated into a compact Pelican case.
WORLD VENTILATOR FOUNDATION
This organization developed a Pandemic Rapid Response Ventilator solution that is compact and features a pneumatic subsystem and sensors for effective volume-control ventilation. The device operation mechanism uses compressed oxygen drive gas mixed with entrained ambient air. The solution is easy to use, lightweight and portable so it can be deployed rapidly to epidemic “hot spots.” It provides safe, adjustable volume-assi¬¬st controlled ventilation—the most commonly used mode for critically ill patients.