Air Force courts tech startups

BOSTON — An idea that sprang from the minds of four captains at Squadron Officer School led to 10 startup companies pitching their ideas to Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, April 20, 2018 in Boston.

The Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator for the Air Force Demo Day was packed with potential investors, Airmen, tech sector experts, government employees and small startup companies with ideas of how to improve the Air Force’s drone systems. These ideas included a nanotechnology paint and bonding substance that can block electronic signals, supply chain and logistics tracking tools and high speed, resilient drones that can fly on three rotors, or hit 50 miles per hour.

“We’re going through a period in the globe of massive disruptions in politics, economies, social society and technology,” said Wilson. “Any one of those would be difficult to keep up with, and we recognize that technology is the one that is fanning the flames in all the others. We want to see what these companies have to offer, and are hoping to work toward being able to access startup ideas quickly, in order to be the disruptors of our adversaries.”

The SOS think tank exercise encouraged small groups to compete to solve problems facing the Air Force. For Capt. Christopher Benson’s SOS group, the challenge was to create an Air Force “X Prize,” based on the public competition that sought to spur innovation in the private sector for space exploration.

“We didn’t think what the Air Force needed was a competition like that, at least to solve the underlying problem,” said Benson, who holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and technology forecasting from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If your problem is acquiring better systems, we just wanted to create a way for the Air Force to better access technology that hasn’t made it to market yet. And now, here we are, and we’re hoping that we can build trust in the startup ecosystem to tap into their creativity without killing them, or making defense contractors out of them.”

Benson witnessed startup lifecycles during his time at MIT, and only knew of one or two that had successfully landed government business. Government funding is seen by startups as either too slow to stabilize them, or too large to foster innovation, according to Warren Katz, Techstars managing director, which worked with the Air Force to mentor the companies and put on the event. The Air Force acquisition community has, as a result, been trying to calibrate the bureaucracy to successfully access startup ideas that are viable in the market without turning the fledgling companies into defense-sector reliant contractors.

“When we first announced this program, within days several members of our organization wanted to help out in any way possible,” said Katz. “The Air Force realized there was more money being spent by private industry in research and development than in the entire military. That switch happened some years ago, so this accelerator system is a way to retrain the Air Force on how to interact with the people doing this research and development, without killing the small companies that do it.”

The accelerator event resulted from a partnership between Techstars and AFWERX, which sets up physical locations for people to pitch ideas to the Air Force and receive funding to make the ideas a reality.

The startup presentations resembled a cross between TED Talks and Steve Jobs unveiling the latest in Apple technology. Each company linked their product to both commercial and military objectives, such as preventing signal, or eliminating counterfeit products entering the logistics supply stream. Presenters were also careful to prove that they wouldn’t rely solely on government dollars, and that a large private market existed for their products using metrics like forecasted market growth and compounded annual growth rate.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson attended a Techstars event during her early April visit to Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts, and Dr. William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, expressed his interest in formalizing a process to use grants to quickly inject funding into startups. One possible avenue would be the government’s Small Business Innovation Research program, which incentivizes research and development.