XTECH IMMERSION: XTechSearch 3.0 finalists participate in an immersion day in Boston supported by FedTech and the xTechSearch program manager, Zeke Topolosky, far right back row.
The xTechSearch competition and the xTech Accelerator program enable the Army to access cutting-edge technology and foster the success of innovative small businesses as it grows its industrial base.
by Kristen McNelis
For small businesses, one of the biggest challenges can be getting noticed. That’s doubly true if the small business with a military-applicable technology has never done business with the government. The Army is working to change that and increase its access to innovative technology while expanding its industrial base.
The third cohort of the Army’s Expeditionary Technology Search (xTechSearch) went to Huntsville, Alabama, in March to the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Global Force Symposium and Exhibition, host of the Phase IV finals of the competition. The 12 small companies were set to provide to Army experts proof-of-concept demonstrations and plans to transition their technologies to the Army.
For small, nontraditional companies looking to do business with the government, nothing could be so valuable as a successfully executed contract with the government. But getting there can be difficult. For that, the xTechSearch program launched the xTech Accelerator in October to provide an invaluable access to mentoring by Army and industry experts who can help make the transition from hopeful to successful.
According to the program’s website, “The xTech Accelerator program is designed to help xTechSearch winners be successful via education, mentoring, networking, and community building.”
A BRIDGE TO THE FUTURE FORCE
Sponsored by the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA(ALT)), xTechSearch is a prize competition for small businesses, drawing in companies and technologies that the Army may not otherwise have access to. But it’s more than just that. (See related article, “More than a Competition,” Army AL&T magazine, Winter 2020.)
In a sense, xTechSearch is a bridge between small businesses developing groundbreaking technologies and the Army. The competition enables the Army to discover innovative technologies and, through modest prize money, help their development. The program not only helps the companies shape their inventions to military needs, but also to potential civilian needs. XTechSearch stands out from other competitions by investing in these companies and working with them to make connections that will help transition novel technologies to the warfighter.
“We have continued to evolve and improve the competition based on feedback from the small businesses,” Jeffrey Singleton, director of technology for ASA(ALT), announced at the AUSA Annual Meeting in October. “We are looking to continue to improve and are launching new initiatives to keep you engaged with the Army and provide the Army opportunities to continue to work with small business innovators.”
ACCELERATING FUTURE TECH
One of those new initiatives is the xTech Accelerator, which was offered to the 12 semifinalists of xTechSearch 3.0 after winning Phase III in October.
Operated by FedTech, the ultimate goal of the xTech Accelerator is to develop xTechSearch participants as quickly as possible so that they can transition technologies to the warfighter. The xTech Accelerator also includes guidance on product development for dual-use technologies, and connections to private technology development programs.
FedTech is a company developer, helping technology entrepreneurs with their business strategies and by providing them with customized training, mentoring and action plans to support the missions of federal agencies. XTechSearch partnered with FedTech to bring a unique opportunity to the competitors and provide them with the ability to continue developing their technologies for both Army and commercial needs.
With a combination of resources and tools, the program helped the finalists after their Phase III semifinalist pitches at the AUSA Annual Meeting in October, to help get them ready for the final phase of the xTechSearch competition—the proof-of-concept demonstrations. Participants in the program learn how to hone their pitch, challenge their assumptions, figure out who their customer could be within the Army, and connects them with potential investors from both the government and private sectors to accelerate their development. “Beyond the networking and connection points, the feedback throughout the xTechSearch accelerator program has helped us modify our product features to better align with Army needs,” said Jim Costabile, the CEO of Syncopated Engineering, a small business finalist that has moved to Phase IV and will be presenting his company’s proof-of-concept demonstration at the xTechSearch finals in March.
FedTech matches a diverse team of mentors with each competing company to help it along the way. The mentorship team is set up to offer different perspectives: One mentor from the Army can provide the Army perspective and show how the technology can be tailored to solve a real challenge and benefit the Soldier. Another mentor is a business expert, such as a defense contractor or seasoned executive. A third mentor focuses on the venture side of things.
Each mentor team is tailored for each mentee company in the accelerator based on its product maturity, potential customers and business needs. It can be a very valuable tool, but it’s up to the companies to leverage those mentors and take advantage of their experience. “The xTech Accelerator mentorship program is an excellent mechanism to mentor nontraditional industry innovators, providing the opportunity to build relationships with potential development partners, while they learn how to work with the Army,” said Diane Ullman, senior medical acquisition adviser for the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command.
One key benefit the Army mentors can provide is help to connect participants to the right people. “I was pleased that, as a mentor, I was able to link up the company I was mentoring with the Army organization that performs the testing that they needed. As a result, we are working on a test-support agreement that will, in the end, help the Army get capabilities to the Soldiers in the field faster,” said Col. Steven Hart of the 75th Innovation Command. That command, an Army Reserve unit with Soldiers who work in technology and business sectors across the U.S., plays a key role in the xTech Accelerator mentorship program. The command’s unique combination of military and commercial expertise, and regional innovation ecosystem connections, provide the Army with forward-thinking technology scouts and strong mentors to help companies’ network in their region.
As part of the effort to transition technology to the Soldier, xTechSearch is encouraging and facilitating small businesses to engage with the Army, and providing them the tools needed to get a contract or establish strategic partnerships. “These are companies strongly motivated to work with the Army and support our Soldiers,” said Zeke Topolosky, xTechSearch program manager and an engineer at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). “We provide all companies that apply to xTechSearch with extensive and valuable feedback on their technology and the rare opportunity to engage directly with the Army stakeholders needed to support potential transition opportunities. Through the xTech Accelerator and mentoring programs, the finalists engage in a productive customer-discovery process with Army stakeholders, and develop meaningful relationships with early potential Army customers or development partners.”
“We’re trying to get the companies to take the initiative to look beyond xTechSearch and present a plan that will show the judges a successful transition from xTechSearch into a contract with the Army, or to develop another strategic partnership to accelerate their technology development. The first three rounds of the competition established that these companies have solutions to critical Army problems, and we want to help deliver these solutions into the Soldiers’ hands faster,” he said.
COLLABORATION THROUGH BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
Learning about the Army acquisition process and customer discovery within the Army were webinar topics—just one of the educational opportunities offered within the program. Participants also have access to FedTech’s online learning portal, Schoology, where they can watch recorded webinars and talks, track goals and objectives for their business, and engage with FedTech’s network of mentors. The webinars, the Schoology platform and a moderated xTechSearch community Slack channel enable virtual participation for most of the accelerator, an attractive feature for small businesses that have difficulty traveling and taking time away from their work.
IMMERSING IN THE ARMY ECOSYSTEM
Supplementing the virtual programming, the xTech Accelerator offered two immersion events to help with dual-use capabilities—helping companies understand how to do business with the Army while also pursuing commercialization opportunities. The immersion events include mentors as well as experts from government, industry and venture communities who offer advice to the companies and provide best practices from their respective areas of expertise. This dual-use approach provides the companies with a greater potential for success and exposes them to more potential partners from both Army and commercial investors. “There’s a good chance other people might invest besides the military directly in your efforts; might partner with you; might provide you a way to take your technology and put it into a larger system,” Dr. Bruce D. Jette, Army acquisition executive, explained to xTechSearch participants at AUSA in October.
The first immersion event—in Austin, Texas, in January—focused on the defense innovation ecosystem and brought together government agencies like Army Futures Command, AFWERX—the Air Force’s innovation group—NASA and the FBI, along with more conventional prime contractors like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to help empower the startups by sharing their experiences, coaching through pitches, and doing their own pitches. Each company that participated in the event had conversations with prime contractor’s small business engagement divisions. “We’ve worked with many accelerators, but the quality of contact here brought together by FedTech and xTechSearch is something else.” said Alec Shkolnik, CEO of LiquidPiston, a Connecticut-based company that specializes in power solutions.
A second event in Boston in February focused on the venture innovation ecosystem and included venture capitalists, vertical focused coworking spaces like GreenTown Labs and The Engine, and corporate venture capital firms such as Philips HealthWorks, Verizon and Bayer. The Boston event focused on accelerating the companies’ abilities to devise and act on a strategy to build their businesses and grow in areas other than defense. Each company that participated in this event gave their technology pitch to a room full of investors, and another round of pitches to a group of innovation leads from large corporations.
Many of the investors scheduled private meetings with the companies the day after the pitches, and the innovation leads gave each company advice on how to hone their pitch, understand the market opportunities and refine business plans. This trip proved to be a strong mentoring experience for the companies, giving them confidence as they prepared for their live demonstrations at the xTechSearch finals. “Having seen these companies first pitch back in July 2019, it is amazing to see how polished they are today in front of these audiences,” said Topolosky, who attended the Boston event in February. “They’ve really honed their pitches to focus on specific Army use cases, but also show the growth potential of their technologies for the Army and in the commercial market.
“I don’t envy the xTechSearch Phase IV judges in Huntsville next month,” he said. “They’ll have an extremely tough time deciding between these companies.”
Through technology scouting programs such as xTechSearch, the Army continues to identify technologies that can potentially revolutionize Army capabilities in the future. While the Army has specific collaboration and funding mechanisms such as ARL Open Campus, Small Business Innovation Research projects and later-stage acquisition processes, the xTech Accelerator can fill in the gaps in developing the small businesses behind the identified technologies.
The xTechSearch competition can only have one grand prize winner, but “that doesn’t mean there are half-winners and half-losers. It means, this is about work, and you have to take advantage of the opportunities put in front of you,” Jette told participants at AUSA in October. The xTechSearch program is investing in all the finalist companies by offering the xTech Accelerator program and providing them with opportunities to make connections and to improve their technology, business models and pitches so that they can be successful in their future endeavors even if they don’t win the grand-prize at xTechSearch.
The road from “technology” to “deployable technology-based solution ready for Army acquisition” can be challenging. The accelerator ensures that the identified technologies make it to the finish line and can have a meaningful impact to the Army.
For more information about xTechSearch and to see the various opportunities available, go to www.xTechSearch.army.mil or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube @xTechSearch.
KRISTIN MCNELIS is an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton providing support to xTechSearch at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory. She holds a B.A. in communication from the University of Maryland.