SILVER SPRING, Md. -- The U.S. Army is on the hunt for innovative science and technology solutions. Small and nontraditional businesses have begun pitching new ideas to panels of Army scientists and engineers in five cities across the country, all with the hope of winning cash prizes and building a working relationship with the Army S&T community.

"There's a lot of things in it for these companies," said xTechSearch Innovation Officer Joshua Israel. "First is obviously the award and the prize money that comes with it. The total prize is $200,000, but there are various stages from the initial $1,000 white paper award to a $5,000 award to come to the AUSA, followed by a $125,000 award at AUSA to compete in the capstone challenge for $200,000."

The Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exhibition, or AUSA, is the largest land warfare tradeshow in North America. This year's event is scheduled for Oct. 8-10 in Washington, D.C. That's where the Army will announce 12 finalists to compete in the future capstone event in April 2019.

The Army Expeditionary Technology Search, or xTechSearch, mirrors entrepreneurial pitch competitions where aspiring entrepreneurs make innovative proposals to panels of investors, who then choose whether or not to invest as business partners.

"They just have to wow us," said Army Chief Scientist and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology Dr. Thomas P. Russell. "They just have to give us a great presentation, sort of like a shark-tanky type thing. Give us an idea that they have great technologies and opportunities that will actually support the warfighter and just wow the panel and I think they'll do great."

Army officials examined more than 340 white papers from small businesses and start-ups that showcased how novel research and technology ideas might benefit the Army's modernization priorities. Businesses that made it through the first round received an invite to pitch their proposals in person to Army S&T leaders at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland, or at regional panels in Austin, Texas, Boston, Chicago and Playa Vista, California.

"I think it gives us the potential for future capabilities, but I think probably the bigger impact, at least immediately, is getting people aware of the things we're interested in and then actually increasing the number of people in our ecosystem to try and think about how we solve Army problems," Russell said. "xTechSearch is really about trying to reach out to nontraditional partners and try to get new ideas, reinvigorate ideas into the needs of the Army and try to create new technologies and opportunities to support the Soldier."

Judges said they've been impressed by the caliber of the presentations.

"I think one of the things I'm looking for as a judge is first of all, is this going to be applicable to the Army's Modernization Strategy," said Dr. Augustus Fountain, the Army's senior research scientist for chemistry and a judge on the first panel. "I think everybody can be a winner in this. Just the conversation with some of the innovators to help shape their idea to make it more applicable to the Department of Defense, and to be honest a lot of people don't know what our challenges are and there are reasons for that. We try to keep things close to the vest because modern warfare is a dangerous business and we want to protect our technology and well as protect our Soldiers and so that makes it difficult to have a conversation with a lot of people in academia or industry."

Looking to spur innovation, some organizations, like the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, have embraced an Open Campus business model.

"The Open Campus business model is really about building this network of the best and the brightest so that when we need them, we build a relationship with them and build a trusted relationship so when we do need them to solve very challenging Army problems, we know who to go to," said Karl Kappra, ARL chief of the Office of Strategy Management. "We don't know what we don't know when we talk to these people and they're there to tell us what their ideas are and we're there to help them grow those ideas. These are all in the vein of looking for, to reach out to companies and looking for disruptive technologies."

The Army completed its first panel, which ran Aug. 1-3 at the Tommy Douglas Conference Center in Silver Spring, Maryland.

"I just think this is a great venue and for the first time we're doing this we're getting a great turnout," Russell said. "We'll do this again and hopefully the turnout, meaning people interested in participating with us, will grow over time we can support where the Army needs to go."

Following the pitches to the judging panel, each participant met with representatives from the Army S&T community to learn about additional collaboration opportunities.

"The competition is really designed to start a dialog with industry," Israel said. "It's reaching out to small businesses and nontraditional partners and break down some of those traditional barriers we see in terms of just talking, to begin that dialog, to begin that business relationship. Through the competition they're going to meet all sorts of Army personnel from labs to small business communities to tech transfer personnel. This will give them the opportunity not only to compete in the competition, but also build their network and continue engagement throughout the Army."

Officials said they are optimistic about the potential for future partnerships.

"I think there's lots of S&T opportunities out there," Russell said. "I think the problem is many people don't understand some of the requirements or needs that we actually have in the Army and it's not because of their aspects, its ours. We don't necessarily advertise our needs very well and that's part of what xTechSearch is all about."

The competition is sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.