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Air Force, MassChallenge project reaches significant milestones

Scott Cohen, Jaxon.AI CEO, presents his pitch during The U.S. Air Force Labs with MassChallenge Demo Day event, June 30, on Hopin.

Scott Cohen, Jaxon.AI CEO, presents his pitch during The U.S. Air Force Labs with MassChallenge Demo Day event, June 30, on Hopin. The event focused on the growth and accomplishments of the 10 startups in the accelerator’s inaugural cohort. (Courtesy photo)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The U.S. Air Force Labs with MassChallenge initiative marked two major milestones this week as the accelerator culminated in a virtual demo day June 30 and the online Banshee program kicked off July 1.

The demo day, hosted on Hopin, focused on the growth and accomplishments of the 10 startups in the accelerator’s inaugural cohort. The startups received specialized mentorship and support from Air Force and MassChallenge experts throughout the eight-week program, which is designed to increase non-traditional success rates with Small Business Innovation Research program opportunities.

The month-long Banshee program will offer virtual training and engagement opportunities with experts and entrepreneurs to 37participants from the Digital Directorate; the Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks Directorate; and the Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapons Systems, as well as National Guard and Army personnel.

The accelerator and the training program are part of a two-year pilot project contracted through the Griffiss Institute in partnership with MassChallenge, a network of startup accelerators that do not take equity stakes in the companies they work with; the Digital Directorate; the C3I&N Directorate; CROWS and the Air Force Research Lab.

Lyle Hopkins, the special projects lead for CROWS, said the accelerator program enabled the office to have efficient and productive engagements with Phase I companies.

“From the ‘round robin’ program kickoff to demo day, the program has been fruitful for us as we’ve worked with companies to gain a deeper understanding of their capabilities, while also ensuring companies have better insight into CROWS challenge sets and where they fit,” he said.

A key feature of the program was the specialized support and interaction the startups received from mentors and experts.

“The startups had an accessible subject matter expert at their fingertips on the call every week,” said Capt. Amanda Rebhi, chief innovation officer for Digital and one of the Hanscom mentors to the cohort. “The experts answered questions such as how to format a letter of support, include multiple Department of Defense stakeholders or pursue Phase 3 opportunities.”

During her remarks at the virtual demo day, MassChallenge CEO Siobhan Dullea expressed the importance of connecting entrepreneurs, government and the private sector to collaborate on technologies that can improve our national security.

“I’m really excited about the work that we have been doing and the impact these teams will have on the capabilities of our Airmen,” she said.

Scott Cohen, Jaxon.AI CEO, said this was the best accelerator program that his team has been involved with so far and that nothing compares to the attention they received and the doors that were opened for them over the past several weeks.

“We had a seemingly never-ending list of people who were genuinely interested in what we’ve built and in trying to figure out where it can be used across the DOD,” he said.

Jaxon.AI has sponsors within the intelligence community, and Cohen said his team is in discussions with several Hanscom programs to see if this technology, which is focused on social media analytics, could be a good fit.

Evandro Valente, the CTO and cofounder of Airgility, Inc., said his company is pursuing base security and perimeter detection enhancements using deployed vision-based systems utilizing on-board artificial intelligence for automation and contextualization of threats.

“Bridging the communication gap and challenges in finding DOD stakeholders has been an incredible lift made significantly easier with this program in place,” he said.

Six of the 10 companies in the accelerator’s first cohort are leaving the program with signed memorandums of understanding with Hanscom or other Air Force program offices to help in their pursuit of Phase II SBIR awards. At least one additional startup is close to signing an MOU with a Hanscom program as well.

As the first iteration of the accelerator winds down, the project’s managers are pivoting to focus on virtual training and interaction opportunities for acquisition professionals and entrepreneurs through the Banshee program.

Christian Melton, senior partnerships manager for MassChallenge Boston, said the Banshee helps bridge the gap between the tech world and federal government.

“The program is designed to fully immerse Airmen and acquisition specialists in the world of innovation, engaging high impact startups, investors, and thought leaders in the space,” he said. “The goal is to educate and arm our Airmen with the tools and best practices to efficiently and effectively work with ‘non-traditionals’ at speed.”

Each Banshee participant started the program with a problem statement, which Rebhi said they will create a game plan to solve as they move through the course.

“For Digital, we will use [our Banshee participants’] problem statements to craft our directorate’s upcoming SBIR focus area, providing our Banshees with an immediate avenue forward,” she said.

Hopkins said CROWS also looks forward to empowering its team with new tools, connections and insights through this joint learning opportunity.

To learn more about the U.S. Air Force Lab with MassChallenge partnership, visit http://apply.masschallenge.org/en/usaf.