When startups receive the right support at the right time, they can have a transformative impact on the world. Over MassChallenge’s decade of experience connecting startups to the critical resources and tools they need to be successful, we’ve seen the vital role that a partnership with an established organization can play. Whether it is tapping into industry expertise or gaining access to new resources and connections, startups gain the institutional knowledge and industry-specific support that helps them scale more effectively and efficiently.
The Air Force Research Lab, PEO Digital, PEO C3I&N, CROWS, and the Griffiss Institute have partnered with MassChallenge to launch the US Air Force Lab with MassChallenge. The goal of this initiative is to support innovation at speed for defense industry by de-risking and growing startups that are addressing national security challenges. To do this, MassChallenge will incubate an exclusive cohort of SBIR Phase I-awarded startups to help them transition to their Phase II awards at a higher rate by providing essential, customized resources and connections.
As we’ve seen in our proven Safety and Security track, partnering with defense stakeholders validates early-stage startups while helping to de-risk the development of these new applications. This is valuable not only for the defense sector, but also for startups as they pursue commercial markets and traditional venture funding. And that’s just the beginning. To learn more about the benefits and opportunities a partnership like the US Air Force Lab with MassChallenge can provide to startups, I spoke with Alex Brickner, CPA and co-founder of SimpleSense, and Evaguel Rhysing, founder and CEO of United Aircraft Technologies, who both participated in our Safety and Security track in 2019.
Cait Brumme: Why should a startup consider working with the Air Force or DoD more broadly?
Alex Brickner: Working with the Air Force can give a startup tremendous access to problem sets, allowing for fast scale than is possible in the private sector. The DoD has created a portfolio of new innovation programs and is making huge strides towards becoming more transparent and welcoming to startups versus the traditional defense contractors.
Evaguel Rhysing: More broadly, working with the Air Force and DoD can certainly open up doors for small businesses that otherwise would take longer to reach – not to even mention opening. A partnership like this can also provide access to a broader market and faster acquisition pathways.
CB: What makes you excited about this joint initiative between the Air Force and MC, a program designed to help accelerate startup progression through SBIR progress?
ER: It’s a great opportunity to combine MassChallenge’s entrepreneurial spirit with the expertise and needs of the DoD. It will help create an environment where companies get to know their customer better and how to address their needs and, in turn, the Air Force gets to understand how startups operate and how to facilitate doing business with them on a much deeper level.
AB: MassChallenge has a unique opportunity to combine Air Force scale with startup agility. It’s a great feeling to empower Airmen operators through the SBIR program by solving problems that the Air Force can’t organically deal with. Getting the chance to meet Airmen face to face and learn about their problems and how we can help solve them is invaluable.
CB: What are some of the emerging trends in the defense space that you’re excited about?
ER: It’s a great time to work with the DoD. First, the DoD has been making strides in facilitating the development of innovative ideas both outside and inside the organization, which makes it far more accessible. Second, the fact that it is expanding its software implementation and recognizing the value of using sensors and data to their advantage for mission readiness, operations, and maintenance really encourages us to continue innovating because the DoD see the benefits our companies could deliver.
AB: The DoD is just starting to learn how to develop integrated software with open interfaces. Connecting disparate systems is a huge opportunity to augment operators with better software tools. There are many regulatory hurdles to overcome, however, the DoD acquisitions community is laser-focused on removing barriers.
CB: What did working with startups/government partners look like in the past? How does this initiative change that?
AB: Often, it’s been slow and painful. Typically, funding opportunities only occur one or two times a year and take 6 months to get awarded. Cycle times like this are just too long to be viable for startups.
The Kessel Run pitch day broke the paradigm by enabling a pitch and award within 2 months of application submission. We literally pitched, waited 5 minutes, and then were awarded the contract and swiped a credit card for payment. This speed enables startups to focus on finding and delivering value to DoD operators instead of optimizing for the acquisitions process.
ER: Prior to this, collaborating with the government or business-to-government models had a stigma attached to them. Complicated processes, long paths for commercialization or challenges with the implementation of the technology kept innovators away. This initiative serves as yet another piece of evidence that the Air Force and the Department of Defense sees our value, has heard us, and is making changes that will be mutually beneficial now and in the long run.