What was initially planned as a three-day, in-person defense innovation event with 600 collaborators, the 2020 Spark Collider and Pitch Bowl seemed like it would fall through the cracks following growing concerns of COVID-19, leading AFWERX to change course.
In the span of three days, the Air Force and its joint partners quickly pivoted to a one-day virtual mega-event including keynotes, presentations and collaborative engagements with more than 2000 on-line and small group attendees across the country from government, industry and academia in collaboration with Capital Factory on March 12.
“These partnerships are how big things happen,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett during the virtual event kick-off with Dr. William Roper, the Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “Partnerships are how the GPS system changed the world and that kind of thing can derive from the projects that we’re putting together here. It’s really exciting.”
The quick-turn virtual experience boasted more than 150 individual events in 15 virtual rooms over the course of 8 hours.
In the afternoon, Roper introduced AFVentures, a collaboration between the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer Program, AFWERX and Air Force Acquisitions, as the umbrella organization for the Air Force’s efforts to work with small businesses to fund critical technologies for the warfighter.
He also announced a tentative combined award of nearly $1 billion in contracts to more than 550 small businesses, with almost half going to the following 21 companies: Aerial Applications, Analytical Space, Anduril, Applied Minds, Elroy Air, Sentient, Icon, Enview, Edgybees, Falkonry, Swarm Technologies, Orbital Insight, Orbital Sidekick, Virtualitics, Wickr, Tectus Corp., Valulytics, Shift.org, Pison, Revacomm Inc. One other company hasn’t been named yet.
These “big bet” companies are slated to receive four-year, fixed-price contracts worth a combined $550+ million through AFVentures’ Strategic Financing (STRATFI) program. This amount includes $100+ million in SBIR funds, $100+ million in Air Force funding and $350+ million in private investment. Roper said he believes future rounds of funding will be bigger.
Speaking from Washington, D.C., Roper highlighted that the U.S. needs to invest in small businesses to expand its industrial base and maintain its edge over global competitors and adversaries due to their critical source of disruptive technology in today’s world.
“I’m here today to tell you that launching AFVentures and making this successful is the most important thing we’re going to do,” he said. “If we’re not working with the best innovators in the world, then we will lose the technology advantage that we have. Getting this right is not just innovation, it is imperative.”
The event also included morning and afternoon Spark Collider breakout sessions and educational programming, which were designed to bring service members of all ranks together with industry professionals to discover potential solutions to Department of Defense problems and learn from each other.
“We’re actually trying to solve problems that matter,” said Maj. Tony Perez, AFWERX Spark lead and the virtual event host. “By creating an environment where service members of all ranks and career fields can engage rapidly and openly with thought leaders and solution providers; we’re setting the foundation for building the Air and Space Forces we need.”