HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The Air Force took steps toward acquiring systems airmen can use to counter cyber vulnerabilities in weapon systems, recruiting high school students or even chart a career after the military during Air Force Pitch Day March 6-7 in New York City.
For small companies and startups, winning an Air Force award represents an infusion of cash and a vote of confidence in their ideas. For core teams from three participating program executive offices, including two from Hanscom, Pitch Day represented the culmination of four month’s work.
Their personnel trained on required acquisition and contracting systems to build a process by which companies could pitch and be paid on-the-spot. The two Hanscom PEO core teams awarded 16 contracts each, and are responsible for 32 of 51 phase I Small Business Innovation Research awards granted during the event. Small core teams from PEOs Digital and Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks chose to award pitches that accompanied demonstrable products, with a company behind them that has a viable business model. One such award to Consul Systems, based in Silicon Valley, is for an application that monitors traffic and behavior on devices like smart phones and shuts them down to prevent tampering. Airmen could potentially one day use it to lock down weapons systems with unknown cyber vulnerabilities.
That is one of 16 similarly innovative SBIR contracts totaling approximately $2.5 million awarded by seven core team members from PEO Digital. Pitches targeted specific topic areas provided to competing companies before the event.
“SBIRs have been around for a long time,” said Michelle Landry, a C3I&N contracting officer assigned to the organization’s seven member Pitch Day core team. “They give us access to Air Force Research Lab funds in order to see proposals and fund demonstrations. Once we get through initial stages, and the program offices can posture the manpower needed for a full-fledged contract, we can work with companies to turn innovations into programs of record.”
For some senior leaders, Pitch Day demonstrations all added up to one big demonstration of how the Air Force can access non-traditional suppliers to build a system of systems that solves problems faced by Airmen in combat and the people who support them. Some hailed it as a sea-change in acquisition culture.
“I loved that Pitch Day allowed our junior acquisition force and senior mentors to make SBIR awards in an innovative way,” said Brig. Gen. Mike Schmidt, C3I&N PEO. “The fact that our selection teams were built from the program offices should increase the likelihood of solutions transitioning to capabilities delivered to the warfighter. The key to success will be in our program office teams’ ability to connect these non-traditional vendors to those warfighters, and help bring their innovative solutions into the Department of Defense.”
While during Pitch Day itself 51 contracts were awarded, teams from every level of Air Force acquisition awarded 200 individual SBIR contracts leading up to the event.
A C3I&N contract with Pueo LLC asked that company to study using their text search application, Insight, for building acquisition documents. The application is in its infancy, and is free to consumers as a beta product.
“We don’t necessarily even have homes for [some pitch day awards] yet,” said Capt. Victoria Wyler, PEO Digital executive officer, who led Digital’s Pitch Day core team. “Fastport, for instance, is a recruiting and workforce retention tool that we can use with high school students and separating Airmen. That’s not in our portfolio at all, but we could see the value for recruiting or retention.”
Pitch Day used the SBIR process to perform a kind of contracting judo, ensuring small businesses and even startups aren’t overwhelmed by the size, time frame and overall weight of a major defense contract. Companies use the initial investment of up to $158,000 and a five-month period of performance to study the feasibility of their proposal without committing too many resources and risking overextension. Similarly, Air Force acquisition personnel and, crucially, testers can observe their progress and posture personnel to handle the most likely successful pitches, without dedicating a lot of government resources to failing ventures.
The success rate for SBIRs within the Department of Defense, according to the most recent statistics available, is about 15 percent. One in six awarded contracts make it to phase three to become programs of record or major, one-time purchases. However, the Air Force’s traditional acquisition avenues are not normally feasible for small companies without the staff to meet full production, security and personnel requirements levied by the Federal Acquisition Regulation. Exact success rates for small businesses and startups attempting to work with the government are difficult to tally, because many companies don’t even try. Most acquisition professionals say one out of six are good odds for Pitch Day-type companies.
“These companies get started on day one building their proposals and getting ready to demonstrate their product to us and the user,” said Mike Clark, a C3I&N contracting officer assigned to be a program manager for Pitch Day. He oversaw a small team who worked for months before Pitch Day. They whittled down hundreds of pitches to separate the best candidates. “We just proved we can check contract award timelines off the list of impediments to delivering capability, so the rest of the process will now be under intense scrutiny.”