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What’s going on out there?

AFWERX | NavalX | Army Tech Search


As we discussed in the last blog post, the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) is a tremendous opportunity to start working with the federal government. For those companies interested in this program, their first question is usually where do I start?

In this article, we’ll specifically cover the DoD SBIR program and provide an overview of the process. Over the last decade, most of their topics, which we’ll call “traditional SBIRs,” have been run the same way. In addition to these traditional SBIRs, there are also some emerging programs trying experimental and streamlined approaches to SBIR that have been much more appealing to small businesses. 

Traditional SBIRs

True to their name, traditional SBIRs offer consistent opportunities for those companies who want to explore potential relationships with the DoD. Traditional SBIRs are also a good starting point for companies in the early stages of their technological development. One fact that points to this being a good entry point is that some published agency statistics cite that the majority of SBIR awards go to small businesses with less than 10 employees. This does vary by agency, and not all are tracking this information, but it does point to SBIR as a useful tool for early-stage companies. 

Traditional DoD SBIRs identify a specific problem statement based on existing military programs. This topic is then approved and incorporated into one of the three rounds each year. The selected topics tend to be extremely focused on a specific problem set that a military customer has identified. It’s important to learn from the Technical Point of Contact (TPOC) more details and context about the military’s pain pointsthis is the whole purpose of the pre-release period. 

The TPOC is the assigned contact for each of these traditional topics. They often had a hand in writing the topic to begin with and will likely be working with the small business throughout the course of the Phase I contract. The topics are usually very technical in nature and only provide a few paragraphs of information about the problem. This is why it’s important to reach out and learn more from the TPOC during the pre-release period. The right context and understanding helps to build strong proposals. 

New/Experimental SBIRs

Several military branches are experimenting with new methods of SBIRs. Starting in 18.2 (Summer of 2018) the Air Force started piloting Special Topics and the AFWERX Open Innovation Topic. Early on, some of these focuses were tied to accelerators and other innovation efforts the Air Force was trying out. 

Currently, the Open Innovation topic is still a front-runner for the Air Force to meet their technology needs and it focuses on dual-use technology. The Air Force recognizes that there are many leading-edge companies in the industry with technology that can be rapidly adapted to meet specific DoD needs. With it’s fast-paced, thousands of awards, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent since the program started in 2018, this program is exceptionally beneficial for small companies looking to accelerate growth.  

Another interesting program comes from the Navy. The Navy rolled out their accelerator program in the Fiscal Year 2020, which began in October 2019. During this time 79 proposals were awarded over four broad topics rather than the historical 3-5 awards per traditional topic. The Navy established a Basic Ordering Agreement with companies that allows for faster award “orders” to be made between Phase I, II, and III. The Navy has tracked that 98% of its first-time proposers chose these accelerated topics to apply to. With all of the positive feedback, it is highly likely that the Navy will continue to roll out this program. 

Overall, what you need to know is that through AFWERX and the Navy, the barriers to entry have been significantly decreased. With Traditional SBIRs, the proposals are 15 pages and much more in-depth. Awards are made to 1-5 small businesses per topic and can take 3-6 months to award. However, these experimental SBIRs have been awarded in as short as a few weeks to dozens of companies per topic all the way up to 430+ companies in the AFWERX 20.1 round. 

In summary, these are just a handful of the pathways to get started with the federal government. Many Department of Defense branches are continuing to experiment and find more streamlined ways to work with small businesses. Small businesses everywhere should learn more about how they fit within these government opportunities and their vast benefits. 

In the next several blog posts, we’ll cover how these simple Phase I awards set the stage for Phase II, and more importantly, to sole-source “Phase III” awards.