By Victoria Mann
Tapping into small commercial industry to meet big needs of the U.S. military
The U.S. government needs new technologies. Other countries are coming out with them, it seems, every day (see here or here or here). But the process for getting those technologies is so complicated that it often turns away the very people who could best provide them: small businesses and entrepreneurs with cutting-edge technology.
This is why Politico recently asked, “Can space acquisition really be reformed?” It’s also why (as the article mentions) organizations such as the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate invest in programs such as Catalyst Accelerator. They acknowledge, as Air Force Space Command Chief General Raymond did, that “There’s an explosion of things happening in the commercial industry, and we want to capitalize on that.”
The people at Catalyst Accelerator are doing their best to find businesses whose technologies can meet the needs of the military and, ultimately, the warfighters whose lives are on the line. But while there is clearly a motivation on the government side of things, there must also be a reason for businesses to make the trip to Catalyst Campus every other week for three months to attend the Catalyst Accelerator.
Teaching business to scientists
There are several reasons for making the trip, many relating to commercialization and collaboration.
Take for instance Gareth Block, CEO of Third Insight, a small business consisting of five people. While Gareth started the company because of his passion for innovation, it’s a challenge to manage the business side of the company: “Really, what I want to do is build great technology, but I need help taking it to market.”
Third Insight’s ECHO software app gives commercial off-the-shelf drones the ability to navigate autonomously in GPS-denied environments, while providing real-time 3D imaging and situational awareness to remote operators. The app could impact SWAT teams, fire departments and first responders, to name just a few. But great potential doesn’t automatically translate into a successful business. Accordingly, Gareth’s goal for his participation in the Accelerator is to put together a business model and figure out the key components of a commercialization plan, “so that when I go to fundraise, which I hope to do soon, I have my ducks in a row.”
Some of the companies in the Accelerator have been around for longer: Nokomis Inc. is a 16-year-old company from Pennsylvania that seeks to provide positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) signals in GPS-denied environments using the radio transmissions of commercial satellites already in orbit. Nokomis’ Senior Scientist, Dr. Cantwell Carson, expects his time at Catalyst Campus to “lay the foundation” for commercializing their recently developed technology.
The Accelerator, for Cantwell, is valuable for providing training on commercialization: “I’m a scientist. I don’t have an MBA. Being able to participate in this level of training so that I can acquire those other skills is invaluable.” But as valuable as the training is for Cantwell, the time and resources to implement that training are just as important.
On the opposite side of the country, in northern Virginia, another small business has been developing a technology for nearly 10 years. Echo Ridge does all things RF, and their proposed technology is a GPS-complementary receiver that allows users to estimate their PNT based on other signals besides those meant for navigation – communication signals, radio signals, etc.
Echo Ridge President Joe Kennedy thinks his company is ready to deliver. He joined the Accelerator to figure out how his technology can fit in with the bigger picture as well as break from the routine of his everyday responsibilities. “This is an opportunity to think about things that should be thought about but aren’t on a regular basis. And you are around people that’ll ask questions you wouldn’t ask routinely, so I think it’s going to be good.”
Third Insight, Nokomis Inc, Echo Ridge. They’re not exactly Lockheed Martin or Boeing. But, they are made up of people who have the technology to meet the needs of the military – not some big impersonal entity, but the needs of individuals warfighters. Through these companies the U.S. may unlock capabilities the world has never seen before. Who knew a commercialization plan could be so important?
(This is Part 1 of a three-part article)