Case Study

How the Early-Stage Startup Westlight AI Gained over $750k in Funding from the Air Force Through MassChallenge


Initially based out of Palo Alto, Founder and CEO of Westlight AI, Aaron Greenblatt, experienced tremendous advantage with the MassChallenge Safety and Security track by receiving essential industry expertise and guidance on funding opportunities.

What Is Westlight AI?Aaron-greenblatt-westlight

Westlight AI is re-conceptualizing data access and control through novel applications of AI and other technologies. The pre-revenue, early-stage startup was founded by CEO Aaron Greenblatt. Aaron received his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford in 2015 and, after spending some years working in Palo Alto, he was looking for opportunities to get Westlight AI exposure on the east coast.

“MassChallenge is incredibly helpful for introductions on the east coast,” Aaron explained. “It totally negates the need to be in Palo Alto for market research.”

Discovering MassChallenge

Upon discovering MassChallenge, Aaron was drawn to the newly formed Safety and Security track, a specialized sub-cohort within MassChallenge that has its own industry-specific programming and network. In addition to the resources and peer-relations MassChallenge offers, Aaron was particularly interested in the learning opportunities in working with government and the grant applications process.

“We’re building a security-focused product, and you’re telling me that MassChallenge can help us work with the government?” said Aaron. “We know that the government handles enormous quantities of sensitive information, but Silicon Valley investors are typically better-connected in the private sector. Moreover, the Air Force is emphasizing agile business development through their new SBIR Pitch Day programs for early-stage companies.”

Mentors, Experts, and Access

Given the early nature of Westlight AI’s technology and vertical application, the MassChallenge network of mentors and experts presented significant advantage. Aaron and his team would regularly lean on the network of 1200+ professionals to answer industry-specific questions that might normally take months of developing or testing to find the answers to.

“If we needed to talk to an expert in finance, an expert in medical devices, an architect, you name it, they were available,” said Aaron. “You can sort right through each vertical and set up phone calls to ask, ‘Hey, we’re working on x, y, z and have an intuition that this might solve a problem in your industry. Do you have thoughts or feedback?’ And you’ll be amazed what people tell you. It’s invaluable.”

These mentors and experts in the Safety and Security track became exceptionally helpful when it came to government funding applications. While government highly encourages, and increasingly works with, innovative startups, programs like the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) are highly competitive, and the application process is nuanced and particular.

“You have to know what the application is supposed to look like,” said Aaron. “MassChallenge is able to provide significant guidance in that process. MassChallenge’s experts show you how to present what you’re doing in a way that the government understands. And this expertise is very hard to come by.”

The Results

During Westlight AI’s initial in-person pitch, representatives from BAE Systems saw potential in them and began to guide Westlight AI about how they structure their relationships with small businesses.

Together, they decided that Westlight AI should apply for an SBIR grant through the Air Force’s Kessel Run Pitch Day, though the due date for applications was in just a week. With BAE Systems’ and MassChallenge’s assistance, Westlight AI was able to organize and submit the application in time, a feat that is typically done over several months.

The collaborative hustle paid off: Westlight AI was selected for a pitch slot at Kessel Run Pitch day and was awarded a $75K Phase I SBIR contract. Westlight AI recently advanced to Phase II of this SBIR program, a $750K contract with the US Air Force. That’s a total of $825K in non-dilutive funding.

“This funding simply would not have happened without MassChallenge,” said Aaron “And now we are able to continue to grow our staff, further refine product-market fit, and deliver product. Best of all, are working with a deeply-knowledgeable and highly-referenceable first customer, the US Air Force.”

When asked if he had advice for any startups interested in applying to MassChallenge, Aaron simply said: “There’s no downside to applying for MassChallenge, and the upside can be highly significant. Their application feedback will be helpful irrespective of program admittance, and you can always apply again in the future.”

About Westlight AI

Westlight AI is re-conceptualizing data access and control through novel applications of AI and other technologies. Westlight’s unique approach to data awareness and management enables a new generation of transformative applications that require data sharing. However, data in these applications is sensitive and must be effectively monitored and controlled across a diverse set of hardware and software platforms.

Learn more about applying to MassChallenge here. To learn more about becoming partner, contact us!