From prize money to mentorship and collaboration, the xTechSearch competition is growing into something of an incubator for promising new defense and dual-use technologies.
by Jess Stillman
It began as a challenge to accelerate acquisition and attract nontraditional small businesses to work with the Army. But the Expeditionary Technology Search (xTechSearch) competition has succeeded in bringing into the acquisition pipeline remarkable technologies-one a solid propellant that's 40 percent more efficient than existing rocket fuel; another, a way to see through walls. And those are just the first two winners of the competition.
Determined to tackle the current modernization challenges, the Army is seeking out new and innovative technology concepts through the xTechSearch competition. Small businesses nationwide have leveraged this opportunity to discuss how their technology concept can improve, enhance and further support the Army's top priorities.
XTechSearch launched its fourth iteration in October 2019 at the Association of the United States Army's (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition, and is expanding to add program elements to increase education and engagement with the Army. Not only is xTechSearch a competition that provides small businesses with a platform to showcase their technologies to Army experts through various stages of development, it also now offers an accelerator program, increased collaboration opportunities, education sessions and opportunities for small businesses to engage with the program on social media. The continuous efforts are geared toward assisting small businesses and providing them with insights on how to do business with the Army.
TACKLING MODERNIZATION, ONE GAP AT A TIME
During each of the four phases of the competition, small businesses show how their technology concept can help the Army tackle its modernization challenges. The small businesses receive feedback and guidance from panels of expert Army judges on how to further develop their technologies so that they can meet the needs of the warfighter. Judging panels include representatives from across the Army enterprise, including laboratory scientists and engineers, program managers, acquisition portfolio managers and the users of the technology themselves-Soldiers. The constant feedback helps small businesses "discover how they can fit in and help the military. We're trying to give an opportunity to dialogue with people in the Army to help understand what their needs are and what opportunities there are and the applications that we are rewarding and the Army will be able to fund," explained Dr. Bruce D. Jette, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA(ALT)), speaking at the AUSA Annual Meeting in October.
To date, the competitions have awarded more than $6 million in cash prizes to more than 235 small businesses, 36 of which have received more than $125,000 each to further advance their concepts. Two grand prize winners have received more than $325,000 each. (The monetary structure of the prizes has changed since the first iteration.) These cash prizes are non-dilutive capital-funding that doesn't require giving up any equity in the company-transferred directly to the company's bank account with no contracts or intellectual property concessions. The money is intended to help the businesses bring their technologies to fruition and open opportunities for the Army and other DOD organizations to invest in their products.
XTechSearch is working to break down the real and perceived barriers for small businesses to work with the Army and is enticing nontraditional innovators to come forward and communicate directly with Army stakeholders.
STRONGER CONNECTIONS, MORE OPPORTUNITIES
The technology search has become more than just a competition; the program aims to uncover novel science and technology concepts while providing ongoing support and mentorships to gain insight and an understanding of how to do business with the Army while navigating its complexity-something that many small businesses need to successfully transition technologies into the Army. The program has sought out various initiatives to support the participating small businesses and connect them with Army leaders, DOD, other government agencies, industry and academia partners.
In October 2019, during AUSA, xTechSearch launched the xTech Accelerator. "The goal of the accelerator program is to integrate small businesses into the science and technology community in a more formal way and provide another set of tools to accomplish their task," Jette said during the event. XTechSearch is partnering with FedTech and the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corp. to run the program, which provides all competitors with various levels of support, including education, community building, goal setting, connections to future opportunities and mentorships.
One of the top initiatives of the accelerator program is to provide mentorship to small businesses. "Small businesses will be able to get a bit of mentoring, networking and make connections to turn your idea into a fielded product," Jette said. The mentorship program provides access to the FedTech mentor network, which consists of Army leaders, industry executives, veteran business builders, experts and defense innovators across the nation.
The accelerator also provides a Slack channel (Slack is an online collaboration tool that includes messaging) to enable small businesses to collaborate with one another during and after each competition, and share opportunities within the cohort. Small businesses can also learn about product development, business development, customer discovery, interviewing and more through access to online learning platforms.
The xTechSearch competition partners with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) to develop a platform that allows small business participants to create a profile that shows an overview of their business and their technology concepts through the Defense Innovation Network. NSIN's Defense Innovation Network provides an opportunity for the small businesses to connect with one another, see problems and solve problems, showcase their current technologies and receive additional resources that can be helpful in growing their business.
This centralized repository, accessible to anyone, allows the xTechSearch program to share information about the small businesses with other interested stakeholders from industry, DOD and other government agencies. NSIN and its programs serve to develop a new alliance of defense, academia and venture communities. These NSIN initiatives and the xTechSearch program attack future defense problems by getting students interested at an early age in defense problems and careers, providing education and resources to foster startup businesses in the defense sector, and helping network and mentor businesses seeking to solve the current and future needs of DOD.
INCREASING THE ODDS
XTechSearch continues to seek out additional resources and partnerships to bring the highest value to small businesses across the nation. The competition is designed to be more than just winning a prize during each phase: It's about making the right connections, growing small businesses and providing warfighters with the next-generation technology they need.
The xTechSearch-sponsored Army Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) topic, "Expeditionary Technology Search (xTechSearch) Dual-Use Technologies to Solve Challenging Army Problems," is an additional opportunity for small businesses to receive funding and formal contracts to further develop their technologies. Agencies within the federal government can advertise their needs with "topics," or see a possibility to fill their needs with innovative technology. SBIR provides small businesses with an opportunity to understand their technologies' potential impact on the Army by publishing topics of interest that they can respond to.
Responding to the 19.2 SBIR topic, 10 small businesses were selected by a panel of judges and awarded a contract of up to $120,000 over a period of six months to continue the federal research and development efforts that were initiated in Phase I, showing the technical merit, feasibility and commercial potential for their technology. Eight of the 10 awardees were companies that had previously participated in the xTechSearch competition.
The SBIR program gives small businesses the opportunity to deliver innovative research and development solutions to key Army requirements. But xTechSearch has taken a new approach to the program and expanded the horizons to allow for groundbreaking technologies through the SBIR topics. The xTechSearch SBIR topic consists of three phases, which are roughly similar to the xTechSearch competition. The SBIR program benefits the Army and small businesses by:
Providing the Army and DOD with an understanding of how the technologies' advantage compares with similar commercial products, along with how the technology can be applied to Army modernization priority areas.
Showcasing the prototype solutions and providing a technology transition and commercialization plan.
Maturing technology to Technology Readiness Level 6-7 (where it is working in an operationally relevant environment), and producing prototypes for further development and commercialization in both the Army and the commercial realm.
Opening the topic to multiple domains and areas of interest and enabling the Army to see additional technologies and capabilities that may be available to assist in solving some of the most critical challenges it faces.
The xTechSearch SBIR topic is providing a pipeline for small businesses discovered through the xTechSearch program to enter into a contractual agreement with the Army to further develop and transition their technologies, the ultimate goal for many of the small businesses entering the xTechSearch competition. The xTechSearch SBIR application is shorter than typical Army SBIR topics, streamlining the process for small businesses and reducing the barrier to conduct business with the Army.
The xTechSearch program works to provide small businesses with the opportunity to become integrated into the Army's ecosystem. As the Army continues to promote long-lasting engagement with traditional and nontraditional defense partners through xTechSearch, the Army is recognizing similar programs and outlets that allow new and innovative technology solutions to be seen and heard.
Since the beginning of xTechSearch 2.0, competitions have overlapped. The Army announced the winner of xTechSearch 1.0 in March 2019, and 2.0 during AUSA in October 2019. It also announced the Phase IV proof-of-concept demonstration competitors at that event. In March, during the AUSA Global Force Symposium and Exposition in Huntsville, Alabama, those Phase IV companies will demonstrate their proofs of concept at the event's Innovators' Corner. Additionally, xTechSearch 5.0 will be launched.
Meanwhile, xTechSearch 4.0 is ongoing. The 12 small businesses selected to move on to Phase IV of xTechSearch 3.0 are:
Anti-Rotational Technologies Inc.
Cayuga Biotech Inc.
Knight Technical Solutions LLC
SIGINT Systems LLC
These small businesses are preparing for the final phase of xTechSearch 3.0 and will present their proofs of concept during the AUSA Global Force event.
The grand prize winner of xTechSearch 2.0 was Lumineye Inc., which demonstrated its man-portable wall-penetrating radar. After participating in xTechSearch 1.0 but only progressing to the second phase of the competition, Lumineye came back to compete again, having made improvements to its technology using the feedback it had received from xTechSearch 1.0.
For more information about xTechSearch and to see the various opportunities available, go to www.xTechSearch.army.mil or follow them on Facebook and Twitter
JESS STILLMAN is a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton providing contract support to xTechSearch at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory. She has a B.S. in health science from South University.
This article is published in the 2020 Winter issue of Army AL&T magazine.