In the so-called great power competition with Russia and China, defense experts have worried that the United States is at a disadvantage because those countries are not subjected to the same contractual and legal hurdles as the Pentagon when it comes to adding new tools and weapons.
But the Air Force wants to change that and their solution plays off the popular television show “Shark Tank,” where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch solutions and win contracts in minutes, not months or years.
In a model that mirrors Kickstarter, companies may be able to walk in with an idea and walk out with Air Force funding.
The Air Force’s pitch days, powered by the Small Business Innovation Research Program, looked to solve problems within the portfolios of Program Executive Offices Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Special Operations Forces and Digital.
The first of such events took place in New York City March 6 and 7. The Air Force awarded 51 proposals in 15 minutes or less, David Shahady, Air Force SBIR/STTR Program Director, said March 7. In one day, the Air Force awarded $3.5 million, including one contract in just three minutes.
“What’s most exciting is that we’re also doing things faster. That’s what pitch day was really all about,” he said. “It was about pushing the limits and trying to make the process of working with the government easier. Simplifying our contracting was the number one thing associated with that.”
Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said one contract was awarded in three minutes. “We believe the best we’re aware of before was around three months,” he said. “If three months was okay before today … what does that say about our thinking about this kind of venture endeavor?”
Air Force officials did not say which company won the award in the record time.
Similarly, Gen. Stephen Wilson, Air Force vice chief of staff, noted that the 51 contracts awarded March 6 are just the first signs of change.
Shahady optimistically posited that some company in the United States right now is developing an answer to every problem the Air Force has. “So the question is how do we reach you? How do we change the paradigm,” he said.
At its core, pitch day is about getting contracts faster to compete with rival nations. To do that, the DoD has to change its approach and foster new relationships with new companies in new regions, like New York City.
“As we look around the world today, we’re in competition. We’re in competition with folks that are doing things differently, they want to change, they do have different values. They’re well resourced, they’re well funded, they’ve got speed, they’ve got ability to do things sometimes that we can’t,” Wilson said.
Maj. Gen. Cameron Holt, deputy assistant secretary for contracting, told the audience that the great power competition is real and while the last conflict was ground-centric, the Air Force has to dominate in the air and cyberspace.
“It’s about creating an environment where we can start doing manufacturing, prototypes and scalable things and most importantly … that we actually will build a robust industry base … the kind of robust industry base that we saw back in World War II to support the entire nation,” Shahady, said. “It’s not all about everything going to the military. It’s about what is the best way for the military to get that item? Is it the commercial market? In many cases maybe it is.”
Companies awarded included CrowdAI, which turns satellite data into useful insights, Securisyn Medical, which specializes in creating an incubation tube that does not come out thus preventing unnecessary casualties on the battlefield and Consul Systems, which secures IoT devices.