HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The Digital Directorate here recently employed an innovative approach to rapidly award seven Phase II Small Business Innovative Research Program, or SBIR, contracts, enabling startup recipients to advance technologies presented at two 2019 pitch days.
Awardees are part of the highly competitive three-phase SBIR program, which encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research and development with the potential for commercialization. A total of approximately $6.75 million was awarded to Intellisense Systems, Scientific Systems, Asymmetric Technologies, Black Swift Technologies, Westlight Networks, Architecture Technology Corp and SimpleSense. These startups received Phase I contracts at the July 2019 Unmanned Aerial Systems and Kessel Run Pitch Days, making them eligible for the Phase II awards.
Several divisions within the Digital Directorate worked together to develop an accelerated contracting timeline and capitalize on external partnerships to award the Phase II funding in just six weeks.
“Historically, the timeline to award a Phase II contract is about six months from receipt of proposal to time of award,” said Capt. Teresa Doskey, a contracting officer for the Force Protection Division. “We shook that up by having all of the contracting officers and tech teams on board very early in the process. Before proposals were even due, we sat down with the evaluation panel and did a cohesive training.”
Training is a standard component of the SBIR award process, but Doskey and her team made adjustments for the condensed timeline.
“We put together a special training course for these Phase II awards,” she said. “It was necessary, because we’re not used to doing SBIR contracts like this – going through the process this fast. It was important to make sure that everyone was on the same page and that, by moving quickly, we didn’t make any errors.”
The Phase II contracts were ready within three weeks and the funding was awarded three weeks later.
Maj. Nick Wasinger, the lead engineer for Counter Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, was involved with the UAS Pitch Day from the start and served as the lead evaluator for all of the force protection proposals through the Phase II awards.
“Keeping the contracting timeline tight helped, because getting Phase II money out the door quicker enables the startups to keep running,” he said. “Small companies normally don’t have a lot of overhead capital sitting in their pockets, so if they don’t have money, they can’t work.”
2nd Lt. Ryan Aranzamendez, an engineer in the Aerospace Management Systems Division, who also served on the evaluation panel, agreed.
“The accelerated contracting process definitely helped with momentum and made it easier to work with the companies,” he said.
The Digital Directorate’s partnership with the Kostas Research Institute at Northeastern University’s Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts, also helped speed things up.
“The collaborative ecosystem, known as the Medusa Innovation Lab, at the Northeastern Innovation Campus enables Hanscom and KRI to identify critical technology gaps jointly, rapidly assess new technologies, and perform rapid prototyping using DevSecOps and agile methods in a state of the art software factory,” said KRI CEO Peter Boynton.
This collaborative space was an important resource for the Phase II evaluation team.
“During the tech evaluation for Phase II, we leveraged the Kostas Research Institute’s lab space, commercial internet and other tools to rapidly work together,” said Wasinger.
Awarding research and development funds quickly is impressive, but ultimately futile, if the SBIR companies receiving them aren’t matched with the right technical experts, said Doskey.
“We can sit here and execute contracts all day, but without an advocate to move these SBIR technologies forward, they’re more likely to crash and burn,” she said. “It’s really easy to get lost when you’re a non-traditional company trying to figure out how to get your technology integrated into a weapons system program. Having somebody on the inside to help these companies navigate the acquisition process is going to be key to the success of these capabilities.”
Finding the right match for emerging technology is important, Aerospace Management Systems Division program manager Andrew Pankow said.
“The company we’re working with knows how to build drones, attach sensors and get all of the pieces of technology talking to each other,” he said. “But they don’t know how it could be useful to the Air Force, so that’s where we come in.”
As part of the evaluation process, the panel looked at the technology the SBIR companies offered, whether or not they had the right team assembled for success and if they were capable of commercializing their results.
“One of the benefits of the Digital Directorate having these Pitch Days is that we are the transition partners and users for these products and technologies,” Wasinger said. “These events collapse the gap between those of us who have requirements and are fielding and sustaining these technologies and the researchers who are discovering them.”
The Phase II awardees have 15 months from the receipt of funds to continue their research and develop products that may one day support the warfighter.
“Through Pitch Days and these SBIR contracts, we now have startups who are doing innovative things and we have a way to field and sustain those things,” said Wasinger. “In the Force Protection Division’s context, that’s amazing.”