During the Second World War, the American small business population saw a significant decline, even as the U.S. military required companies big and small to contribute to the war effort. In fact, half a million small businesses simply disappeared from the American economy.

As the DoD has put renewed focus on great power competition – notably with China – enterprise and small business could play an important role, working alongside large and established defense contractors.

Last week, leaders from AFWERX – the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force and powered by the Air Force Research Laboratory (ARFL) – met with technologists, startups, and venture capitalists at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX. They discussed national and global security challenges. AFWERX continues to play a critical role in acquiring the cutting-edge technologies needed to meet these challenges.

The three-day event featured panels and fireside chats focused on providing practical advice to small companies about topics such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, cybersecurity, venture capital, foreign ownership issues and navigating the defense innovation ecosystem. The event further came as the Department of the Air Force undertook one of its most significant recalibrations in recent history, namely positioning the Air Force and Space Force to maintain supremacy in an era of Great Power Competition.

Chasing Innovation

The theme of the event was highlighted in the keynote address from Col. Elliott Leigh, AFWERX director and DAF chief commercialization officer, in which he proclaimed, “Chasing Innovation: Lessons Learned.”

Leigh further said the department’s transition to an enterprise focused on Great Power Competition will require a pipeline of cutting-edge technologies from startups and military personnel to AFWERX.

“We work contracts—we run the front end of the pipeline,” Leigh continued. “We do prototypes, and we transition those technologies, but there are other elements of this. It’s really people that win the wars. It’s Airmen and Guardians, members of our armed services. It’s soldiers and sailors. It’s Marines. You’re going to see the whole joint community here this weekend talking about this.”

Yet, while innovation remains critical, the United States still needs to field these cutting-edge technologies first, well before its adversaries can to have the greatest impact.

“We need to quickly move those and get them into the hands of somebody who can do something with them,” Leigh said. “That gives [warfighters] an advantage—what I like to think of as an unfair advantage—over their adversaries in a wartime environment.”

America’s Superpower is Its Ingenuity

In his address, Leigh further reiterated that American ingenuity is the country’s “superpower,” and has provided it with an edge that helps it win wars.

“We know our adversaries want to tap into that superpower of American ingenuity,” Leigh said. “It’s why they’re attending our universities. It’s why they’re trying to buy into your companies. It’s why they’re interested in your intellectual property. It is our superpower.”

STARTFI  Award Selection Announced

At SXSW, AFWERX also announced the Program Year 2024 Strategic Funding Increase (STRATFI) contract award selections from its Phase II eligible applicants. STRATFI is both an AFWERX and SpaceWERX effort to help Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) projects overcome the difficult transition between development and full production.

The multi-year infusion of funds is meant to provide small businesses an opportunity to find the investors they need and the ability to continue research and development as they march toward full-rate capability.

“By deliberately engaging with Space Force Deltas, Air Force Major Commands, Program Executive Offices and Department of the Air Force Senior Acquisition leadership, we are employing dollars at scale, both government and private investment, to accelerate the development of strategic capabilities,” said Leigh. “I am impressed by the scope and diversity of capabilities submitted in response to the Program Year 24 opportunity and am excited to see the outcome of the continued development of these capabilities over the coming years.”

Funding amounts within the STRATFI program range from $3 million to $15 million for each defense project, while the Program Year 24 combined cohort for both AFWERX and SpaceWERX accounts totaled $193 million in SBIR/STTR funds, $419 million in government matching funds and $187 million in private matching funds. Small businesses that have received a SBIR/STTR Phase II award within the prior 24 months are eligible to apply for the STRATFI program, AFWERX announced.

This year’s AFWERX STRATFI selections supporting the U.S. Air Force are:

  • 3D Scanning and Visualization using AI and XR, Grid Raster, Inc.
  • Advanced Tactical Augmented Reality System, Red Six Aerospace, Inc.
  • Bedrock Secure Processor ASIC, Idaho Scientific
  • BESPIN CloudOps with Trek10, Trek10, Inc.
  • Bombers Robotics, Wilder Systems, Inc.
  • Control Systems for Coordinated Operations (CoSyCO), Coherent Technical Services, Inc.
  • Core VR Environment, HAVIK Solutions, LLC
  • Farsight: Actionable Intelligence at the Tactical Edge, Reveal Technology, Inc.
  • Model One, Istari Federal LLC
  • Service Design Accelerator, Skylight Inc.
  • Tactical AI, U.S. Air Force, EpiSys Science, Inc.

“I am incredibly proud of the strides the team has made to accelerate the review, selection and award processes to significantly reduce the notification timeline and build a robust program able to offer multiple opportunities throughout the year,” said Daniel Carroll, AFWERX AFVentures director. “We are excited to collaborate with our government, industry and private investment partners to execute this bridging program from SBIR/STTR Phase II to operational use and commercialization.”

This year’s SpaceWERX STRATFI selections supporting the U.S. Space Force are:

  • GEO Satellite Servicing Vehicle, Starfish Space, Inc.
  • Hybrid Space Optical SATCOM, Skyloom Global Corp
  • Integrated Digital Platform, Defense Unicorns, Inc.
  • Mobile Autonomous Robotic Swarms, Lunar Outpost, Inc.
  • Proliferated GEO SATCOM, Astranis Space Technologies Corp

“The STRATFI program is advancing game changing end-to-end capabilities for the United States Space Force,” added Arthur Grijalva, director of SpaceWERX. “These innovative ideas, technologies and capabilities are what we need to compete and win as a nation.”

Once the STRATFI contract is awarded, the partnering government organization will work with the awarded small business to execute the contract – while the ultimate goal is to transition the technology to a Phase III contract that will allow the effort to be fully deployed and leveraged within the supporting customer’s organization.

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.