LEADER ENGAGEMENT: Maj. Gen. Edmond “Miles” Brown, commanding general of DEVCOM, delivered opening remarks at the xTech Innovation Combine pitch competition on July 21, 2021. Six companies pitched their ideas to an open forum of attendees from government, industry and academia. (Photo by Army Futures Command)
Sometimes, research and development is about finding cutting-edge suppliers and developers and accelerating their capabilities.
by Matt Willis, Ph.D.
Transitioning cutting-edge commercial technologies into the hands of Soldiers is a top priority for the U.S. Army, and accelerator programs are among the mechanisms the Army is leveraging. Accelerators can assist in bringing in dual-use technologies to solve current problems and provide Soldiers with the necessary tools in the field. The Army’s Applied Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and xTech programs—led by the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA(ALT))—have successfully adopted the use of accelerators to assist in educating, mentoring and transitioning technologies from nondefense businesses into the Army’s ecosystem while providing them with opportunities to earn cash prizes and potential follow-on contracts to support the continuous development and implementation of their solutions.
WHAT ARE ACCELERATORS?
Army accelerators are tailored programs designed to speed up a businesses’ growth and development to address key market gaps and explore dual-use cases that can be used in military and commercial industries. Each accelerator’s programming is uniquely crafted to provide businesses with specialized education, individualized mentorship, exposure opportunities, or other services based on the needs of the Army, DOD and the small businesses. For businesses identified by the Army as having relevant technologies, participation in an accelerator provides resources that can greatly enhance a business’s probability of successfully transitioning technology to the DOD, all while bolstering their business model.
Army accelerators provide a space for government entities to have flexibility in how they work with innovative small businesses by using the resources available to non-government entities, such as third-party investors, industry contractors and other service providers. One example is the use of public-private partnerships to provide a connective landscape amongst the Army, small businesses, the venture community, the organic industrial base and DOD prime contractors in the context of the U.S. markets. All of these parties and efforts bolster the probability of transition success to the Army at scale.
These specialized programs benefit not only the businesses directly, but also the Army stakeholders looking to transition technology to the Soldier. A small business that is not yet a seasoned military partner is more likely to field its innovative technologies to Soldiers if it has the information and guidance provided by an accelerator. The Army Applied SBIR and xTech accelerators produce insight reports, quantitative and qualitative data, and recommendations for how the Army can continually evolve its programs to be better positioned to transition technologies rapidly from external partners.
The xTech program manages the Army’s prize competitions to award and accelerate innovative technology solutions to help solve critical mission challenges, and was the first Army program to adopt the accelerator construct. The program leverages judges from across the Army and DOD to assist in assessing and selecting innovative technologies from the commercial sector to support current Army needs.
XTech was the first Army program to launch a pilot accelerator program to assist in breaking down barriers to entry for bringing small business solutions into the Army. XTech began as the Army’s Expeditionary Technology Search Competition, which provided seed money as prizes to competitors in successive rounds. The first two iterations of the annual open-topic competitions did not include accelerators. While the program successfully marketed the Army as a viable partner, the participating businesses were not fully able to understand where they fit within the Army’s ecosystem. Early xTech competitions revealed a need for further direction on how these businesses could create lasting relationships with the right stakeholders and how to navigate the Army landscape to implement their solutions. Thus, the xTech Accelerator program was launched during xTechSearch 3 in 2019. Since then, more than 10 Army-sponsored accelerators have been developed and executed, spanning both the xTech and the Army Applied SBIR programs, to offer additional opportunities to participating small businesses. The Army has partnered with FedTech—a private venture-building firm at the intersection of deep tech and entrepreneurship—to support design, building and implementation of accelerators.
ADOPTING THE ACCELERATOR CONSTRUCT
The Army SBIR program, which aligns innovative small businesses with critical U.S. Army priorities to turn over game-changing solutions to Soldiers, recently adopted the accelerator construct because of the value it has brought to small businesses participating in xTech competitions. Lt. Col. Marcus White, the deputy director for Army Applied SBIR and Army prize competitions, said, “Within the offices of the U.S. Army SBIR program….We are trying to take some real, deliberate, measured steps to push technology acquisition as far as we can within the Army…for both small businesses and Army stakeholders.”
The Army SBIR Program launched its first two accelerators in September and October 2021 with a goal of assisting small businesses in quickly and efficiently transitioning technologies into the hands of Soldiers. Through the accelerator, there was an average 54-percent increase in small businesses’ understanding of the Army’s current priorities, based on survey responses, and more than 55 Army engagements which included things like conference attendance, one-on-one meetings with program managers and accelerator event participation.
BENEFITS OF ARMY ACCELERATORS
Since these programs have been adopted, a number of positive outcomes have resulted. Army accelerators have promoted greater awareness of the Army as a potential partner and customer among commercial technology businesses, and have developed new frameworks for traversing the chasm of technology transition, otherwise known as the valley of death. Accelerators allow the Army to have close contact with the founders of small businesses, creating an opportunity for the Army to have direct interactions and develop empathy for challenges unique to innovative small businesses, which, in turn, allows stakeholders and policymakers to adjust protocols for streamlined integration.A unique benefit of accelerators is that they can be customized to the needs of participating companies and the content is at the discretion of the sponsoring organization. A prime example of this customization was in the xTech Global Artificial Intelligence (AI) Challenge, in which the accelerator team designed a customized accelerator for international AI businesses looking to partner with DOD.
“To truly have ‘world class’ technologies, the U.S. Army must reach out to worldwide technology development sectors to understand their unique solutions to the DOD’s AI challenges,” said Nathan Anderson, technical director for the Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Atlantic International Technology Center – UK. “Another goal of the [competition] is to provide mentorship and networking to industry finalists, many of whom may not have done business with the U.S. government previously. This mentorship will help break down entry barriers to future business and create more enduring partnerships with international technology developers.”
The global competition enabled the U.S. to understand the solutions available on an international level that can meet the Army’s needs. The accelerator helped the participants work with the Army effectively to meet those needs.
The Army Applied SBIR and xTech programs strive to continuously improve the processes and the benefits for participating businesses, making it easier to do business with the Army. For example, each accelerator program collects comprehensive entrance- and exit-interview data from its cohorts to augment the strategy and execution of future accelerator programs. The data has aided the Army in identifying areas of improvement for future competitions to meet not only the needs of the Army, but also small businesses. Through continuous feedback from previous xTechSearch accelerators, the Army learned that small businesses wanted additional opportunities for follow-on contracts. As a result, the xTech program was able to confirm the information with data points and provide the top small business finalists an opportunity to submit for a Phase I SBIR award in conjunction with cash prizes. This pivot is in line with the Army SBIR program’s broader strategy to have acquisition personnel and end users drive topics to maximize the likelihood of transition through established and funded Army acquisition programs.
To date, the program has provided accelerator support to 87 companies from across the U.S. and internationally. These businesses have experienced success in winning more than $33 million in DOD contracts, and engaged with more than 900 Army personnel through the facilitation of educational modules, interactions with strategic partners and customer discovery.
In addition, the businesses had an opportunity to converse with more than 30 U.S. industrial-base leaders, and more than 30 businesses briefed senior leaders in Army acquisition, with many being directly connected to program managers. When asked what the most valuable part of the experience was, Jennifer Perusini, Ph.D., the CEO of Neurovation Labs, Inc., one of the Army SBIR Accelerator participants, said, “Understanding what acquisitions are and what the process looks like are what I gained from the accelerator…. I feel significantly more comfortable than when I started.”
These engagements and contract awards are driving growth within these businesses and creating opportunities for them, not only with the Army but also in the commercial marketplace. Among the participating businesses are dozens of success stories demonstrating technology transition to Soldiers and the small businesses becoming healthy dual-use ventures. For example, Vita Inclinata, a maker of helicopter and crane load stabilization and precision hardware, and the xTechSearch 4 winner, had unprecedented speed from initial federal research and development funding to purchasing of systems.
TRX Systems, xTechSearch 3 winner, similarly went from a SBIR Phase I project to being chosen by the Army at source selection for the dismounted operators’ position, navigation and timing system.
Another prime example, xTechSearch 5 finalist and quantum technology company ColdQuanta, has been leveraging federal funding since its inception and has a strong research partnership with the DEVCOM Army Research Lab (ARL) and multiple key partnerships in the defense industry.
Since the first iteration of these accelerator programs, the team has worked with dozens of Army program offices to support their goals of successfully transitioning innovative technologies to Soldiers. Accelerators have proven to be a value-add for businesses experiencing roadblocks and hurdles that make it harder for them to develop actionable technology transition plans.
DOD initiatives prove more successful when they are developed with empathy for small businesses. Nontraditional business partners developing innovative technologies may lack the financial resources, knowledge and experience with government contracting efforts that larger businesses often have. The regulations associated with government work require specialized resources and expedited contracting and award mechanisms are particularly helpful to businesses that may not have the ability to wait longer for revenue.
DOD should continue its efforts to mitigate limitations for small businesses to work with the government, especially in the area of deep-tech. Businesses are often unable to devote the needed resources to navigating the contracting process, government bureaucracy and military technological requirements, while simultaneously funding their own technology development. Though the tech transition process can be challenging, accelerators are a proven resource that can be made even more effective through DOD stakeholder support, whether through mentorship, attendance at an accelerator event, judging a prize competition, participating as a company or sponsoring a competition. Innovation is not a destination; it is an iterative and continuous process that accelerator programs understand and foster.
MATT WILLIS, Ph.D. leads the Army’s portfolio of private sector engagements through prize competitions and the Army SBIR program, comprising more than $275 million in annual research and development investments. Previously, he served as the Army director for laboratory management; chief for acquisition at the Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Program Analysis and Integration Office; and the deputy director for special projects in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research. Willis started his Army career as a research chemical engineer at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. He earned a Ph.D. and an M.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Cornell University.