US Air Force Doubles Down on Innovation

Dec 2, 2019

Failures go hand in hand with innovation. That was one of the main themes heard at the first Air Force Space Pitch Day. Held in San Francisco, the two-day conference represented a stark contrast to traditional government contracting and featured two of Silicon Valley’s biggest stars – entrepreneur Elon Musk and Khosla Ventures founder, Vinod Khosla – to set the stage for the Air Force’s new approach to technology investing.

USAF Pitch Day

Sponsored by AFWERX, a newly-created Air Force office to help engage in transformative opportunities, Air Force Pitch Day establishes a new paradigm for how the Air Force capitalizes on innovative research led by small businesses. To gain access to cutting-edge technologies and decrease the risk that often prevents start-up technologies from seeing the light of day, the Air Force developed a process for selection and funding that allows small businesses to advance innovative ideas.

Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center commander, recently told SpaceNews.com, “What you see here is your Air Force trying to do things differently; experimenting with how we can work closer with the commercial space market particularly the small businesses. We have to transition from an industrial age acquisition model to something more modern. We have to do that because of the threats we are seeing from our adversaries.”

Space and Missiles System Center

To take part in the unique engagement opportunity, L3Harris partnered with boutique software company, Stratagem Group, to employ agile engineering and research and development to meet the needs of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Intelligence Community.

“Continuous searches to team with the right small company with the right skills and right culture is the hallmark of our efforts to pursue these opportunities,” said Rad Widman, L3Harris senior project manager.

Widman, along with L3Harris Senior Scientist Dr. Tom Kelecy, L3Harris Systems Engineer Adam Marsh and engineers from Stratagem, identified a capability gap and DoD sponsor that could benefit from an offering for data quality assessments and utility to support the Air Force’s first Space Operations Squadron’s (1SOPS’) on-orbit sensors. The sensors provide optical observations for highly accurate orbit determination of high-valued assets. 

The team developed a pitch around their offering, which Stratagem delivered at the conference. Stratagem was one of 30 small businesses down-selected from more than 100 solicitations that pitched an offering to a nine-person panel in a format similar to that of the popular TV show Shark Tank.

Will Roper

After the pitches concluded, the Air Force awarded $750,000 on the spot to 30 small businesses. Of those companies, the Air Force awarded seven – including Stratagem – up to $1.5 million more to advance their technologies further.

Capt. Ashley Feldman

“The risks of failing in a small company are much different than in a big company,” said Kelecy. “They are better positioned to accept risk and recover from the failures than a company of our size. By aligning L3Harris with smaller, agile companies, we benefit from their innovation, which can help discriminate us from the competition.”

L3Harris and Stratagem will deliver a proposal to Air Force outlining how they will spend $750,000 in funding. L3Harris anticipates receiving about half of the awarded funding to support improvements to the 1SOPS’ current operational capability.

During his talk, Khosla said that while failure is a part of innovation, people should have “smart failures" or situations from which they can learn. This approach echoes a recent tweet from Musk who wrote, “I have been chief engineer/designer at SpaceX from day 1. Had I been better, our first 3 launches might have succeeded, but I learned from those mistakes.”

The Air Force is betting that the small business participants will learn, thrive and be instrumental in modernizing Air Force capabilities that will give them an edge in space.