Written by Lora Premo
Seven SBIRs Awarded to Recent Catalyst Accelerator Alumni
Multiple Small Business Innovation Research Awards Go to Four Companies from Inaugural Cohort
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., October 2, 2018 – Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV) Catalyst Accelerator, at the Catalyst Campus for Technology and Innovation in downtown Colorado Springs, is proud to announce that four of the six companies in the Accelerator’s Terrestrial Weather cohort, who attended the inaugural session of the program from January to April 2018, have together won a total of seven Small Business Innovation Research awards (SBIRs).
Most of the SBIRs awarded were new Special Topics Phase I SBIRs, typically bringing up to $50,000 in non-dilutive funding for each company selected. This new fast-funding mechanism means awards occur within 60 days of application as part of the Air Force’s commitment to acquiring new technologies rapidly. The performance period is short, as well – three months to develop the basic blueprint for each company’s innovative technology.
CEO and Chief Scientist of Adaptive Systems LLC, Rob Lancaster, is thrilled about the $50,000 SBIR awarded to his company to further develop their weather intelligence support environment software. Adaptive Systems first heard about Catalyst Accelerator from their Intellectual Property (IP) lawyer, who was helping them with a dilemma. At that time, Rob emphasized, “We were stuck. Our issue was that we didn’t want to take on any investment money and lose the [rights to the] IP for the technology we were developing… but we had to maintain full-time jobs. We just couldn’t afford to put in our own funds and do it full time to really ‘accelerate’ the technology ourselves.”
Catalyst Accelerator changed all that. “Catalyst offered us a great opportunity by giving us seed money; not only that, it opened so many doors to potential customers…. But I thought the most beneficial part of the whole program was that it taught us the ropes, how to really market your product. They gave us access to services and help that we didn’t know existed! Marketing support, customer discovery, how to actually build a solid business plan and how to get it out there to actually make it happen – those services were invaluable.”
Winning the SBIR award brought more than just excitement: “The fact that AFRL did indeed see value in what we were doing validated our whole vision – ‘Yes, finally, somebody sees something!’”
Guidestar Optical Systems is the recipient of four recent SBIRs, with a value of $500,000. Troy Rhoadarmer, Founder & Principal Scientist, explained, “We were only expecting maybe two out of four! It’s exciting in that these programs are going to provide a little more stability for our company.
“Three of the [award] topics are related to the technology we brought with us into the Catalyst Accelerator. We shifted a little bit as we went through the Catalyst program and modified what we ended up pitching. Through the Catalyst Accelerator process we talked to potential customers who gave us a better understanding of what they are looking for and how and where our technology can be applied in what they are doing. When the last round of SBIRs came out, we saw several topics where our technology could provide a solution. We’re very pleased and a little shocked that we got all four of them.”
Troy went on to say, “Because we went through the customer discovery [at Catalyst Accelerator], we used some of the techniques we learned when we talked to the SBIR customers ahead of time, even the ones where we thought, ‘Okay, we’ve never talked to these guys before but we could probably do what they are asking.’ Catalyst also opened up a new market area for us to look at. One of the SBIRs we went after, we probably wouldn’t have except for being at Catalyst and talking through the technologies and the customer requirements.”
The bottom line? According to Troy, “We are using a lot of what we learned at the Accelerator to adapt how we are doing business. We are a little more intentional, which has helped us become more stable and less of a roller coaster.” As an exciting postscript, Troy also announced that they have recently been awarded a Phase II SBIR, which will encompass prototyping their proposed technology.
Advanced Radar Company (ARC) spun off from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, according to Director of Strategy Ben Tarr, and has been primarily selling weather radar and weather radar processing software systems to international customers, focusing on the commercial market. “We haven’t done any business with the DoD or the US military, so the big reason we were excited to get involved with the Catalyst Accelerator program was the significant amount of [government] work related to meteorology, weather forecasting, and weather radar specifically; right now, we see a big opportunity to diversify who the DoD goes to when it comes to achieving their goals and meeting their needs related to these types of activities.”
Ben went on to explain, “As a small business, it is really hard to jump into a new vertical. We have established pipelines and customer relationships around the world for the commercial work we do, but to launch into a campaign to make the DoD community even aware of the fact we exist takes a considerable amount of time and resources. What the Accelerator program really did for us was jump-start that entire process. The ability to talk directly to the user and the acquiring customer on the DoD and Air Force side was really powerful. We were directly introduced to the right set of people at the right time and were able to establish exactly what our offering would be. It became clear to us when talking to the DoD that our open-source AregnTM software product could be very advantageous to what the DoD is doing in the weather community.”
As for winning the SBIR, Ben and his co-workers at ARC are eager to get going on the work it requires: “We proposed doing a feasibility study to look at what it would do to take the open source Aregn product and cyberharden it so it could be deployed as a toolset that the Air Force could use. Because Aregn today has the ability to bring in more than just weather data; the DoD is very interested in how they can leverage existing sensor assets that are on orbit – exploring the ability to ingest some of those existing sensor datasets and looking at what Aregn can do to merge them with radar data to create standard meteorological data products.”
When asked how he felt about winning a SBIR, SaraniaSat’s CEO Tom George immediately said, “I am very grateful!” He followed that exclamation with this explanation: “The SBIR award is extremely important to us because it is the first key step to getting the DoD as a customer. SaraniaSat thanks the Air Force’s Special Topics Phase I SBIR program for making our DoD engagement possible.”
SaraniaSat’s advanced remote sensing technology is so unusual, SaraniaSat was recently written up in VentureBeat as a ‘Unicorn’ with a unique solution. Using satellites, drones and aircraft, SaraniaSat acquires high-temporal and high-spatial resolution, hyperspectral imagery of vast areas that they then process rapidly so that clients may receive early warning of remotely-detected changes for their application. Tom explained that, thanks to the SBIR award, his proposed technology now has Air Force Weather and two organizations within the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center as potential end customers.
“What Catalyst did is prepare us really well,” especially “with the customer discovery process. We got a really good appreciation for how our tech could dovetail into their requirements, so even before the SBIR Phase I call came out we had a lot of our homework done. The preparation and training we got at Catalyst was invaluable in that it was a no-brainer to write the proposal when the SBIR came out because we had all the elements in place. Responding cold to an opportunity that came out, I doubt that our chances would have been as good.”
Ultimately, according to Tom, the SBIR award “is a very important foundational steppingstone for SaraniaSat’s engagement with the DoD. There is an ancient Chinese proverb: ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.’ Nowhere can that be truer than with this SBIR.”
ABOUT AFRL SPACE VEHICLES DIRECTORATE CATALYST ACCELERATOR
The AFRL Space Vehicles Directorate Catalyst Accelerator is a defense and national security industry accelerator, headquartered on the Catalyst Campus in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Accelerator’s mission is to promote technology advancement for the warfighter and guide technology transfer from the government to the commercial market and vice versa. Catalyst Accelerator partners with the Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization (C-TRAC), Colorado Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) of Boulder and the Pikes Peak Region, and Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) to provide a robust, mentor-driven curriculum for Accelerator teams. Visit www.cataystaccelerator.space for more information.
ABOUT CATALYST CAMPUS FOR TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION
Catalyst Campus for Technology and Innovation is a research and development campus focused on aerospace and defense technologies headquartered in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado. The vision of Catalyst Campus is to create an economic development “cluster” to expand the aerospace and defense industrial base in Southern Colorado through a collaborative infrastructure platform that supports entrepreneurs and small businesses. This unique, cluster environment stimulates economic growth and accelerates the development of new companies; promotes industry innovators, entrepreneurs, and start-ups; supports business training and workforce development; offers access to an applied research and development laboratory; and provides business development, support services and venture capital investment to accelerate innovation and the commercialization of technologies. Visit www.cataystaccelerator.space for more information.