WASHINGTON – The U.S. Army is partnering with businesses across the globe to discover and fund the future of innovation for the defense industry through prize competitions.
The xTech Program, sponsored by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)), manages these prize competitions to utilize groundbreaking science and technology that can help solve the Army’s most critical challenges. By engaging non-defense and start-up businesses in competitions throughout the year, the Army can identify and fund forward-thinking solutions while offering these organizations the opportunity for a long-term partnership.
“The Army has an exciting opportunity to bring private-sector innovators into our ecosystem through the xTech Program,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Director of Army Prize Competitions and Army Applied SBIR Program, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, Research and Technology (DASA R&T). “Technology is constantly evolving, and collaboration with non-defense businesses at the forefront of this evolution enables the military to stay ahead of the curve and be proactive in solving technological challenges faced by the Warfighter.”
xTech also realizes that technology development isn’t limited to the U.S., and that a global reach would further expand and expedite modernization efforts. As a result, the program is breaking ground on international opportunities with the introduction of xTechGlobal, which will expose the program to a worldwide audience. The competition is partnering with allied defense innovation offices to engage international small businesses to pitch their technology solutions to the Army. The xTechGlobal competition will be an annual event, the first being the xTechGlobal Artificial Intelligence (AI) Challenge, taking place in London in fall 2021.
REDEFINING PRIZE COMPETITIONS
Both the Army and participating businesses reap significant benefits from the xTech Program. While prize competitions may be commonly perceived as simply a monetary award, xTech breaks this misconception for both the Army and external businesses looking to have their innovations funded and utilized through substantial partnerships, and follow-on contracts and agreements.
“xTech is more than your typical prize competition because it breaks down barriers between the Army and outside businesses,” Dr. Willis said. “The program not only identifies and awards state-of-the-art technology, but also provides these organizations with mentorship and a pathway forward to continue to transition their innovations to the Army.”
From the government perspective, xTech advances the Army’s capabilities on the frontlines and fills critical technology gaps. When faced with modernization challenges, technology solutions developed by external businesses can solve these problems and facilitate the Army’s leverage of overall Soldier readiness.
On the business side of these misconceptions, many assume that Army problem statements are too complex, or on a huge scale that is unattainable for most small businesses. While some challenges are certainly greater than others, the reality is that the Army frequently needs practical technology solutions for their day-to-day missions that are already in the works by external businesses and ready to be implemented by the Warfighter.
THE COMPETITION IS OVER… NOW WHAT?
While many prize competitions leave participants wondering what’s next, the aftermath of xTech is that the Army will frequently engage companies via ASA(ALT) in subsequent business opportunities through a prize authority. These allow the government to both award cash prizes, and to fund technological achievements and prototype development that could enhance military performance.
Title 10 U.S. Code (USC) 2374a is a prize authority vehicle for all business entities, large and small, including those based internationally, with a prize pool of up to $1M per competition and the ability to receive follow-on contracts and agreements with the United States Government (USG). The alternate prize authority that xTech can implement is Title 15 USC 3719, which is an avenue geared toward U.S.-based small businesses that provides monetary prizes only and carries a prize pool of up to $50M per competition.
While not every competitor who enters or wins an xTech competition will be guaranteed a follow-on contract, the opportunities for ongoing work with the Army are expansive for many types of private sector businesses.
ASA(ALT)’s industry opportunities capitalize on the fact that the Army is dependent on collaboration with the non-defense sector for the success of future Soldier readiness. These opportunities and contractual avenues include programs and vehicles such as Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), Other Transactional Authority (OTA), Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR), Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) and Broad Agency Announcements (BAA).
The SBIR program allows small, U.S.-based innovative businesses the opportunity to provide Research and Development (R&D) solutions to solve critical Army needs; these research projects can reach up to $3.7 million each, or even more in some cases. The most recent xTechSBIR competition launched in 2020 and gave small businesses the chance to receive up to $1.67M each in follow-on Direct to Phase II SBIR contracts, in addition to significant cash prizes.
The OTA program authorizes research and prototype projects, and is a highly flexible business tool that enables efficient acquisitions for the Army. Last year’s Innovation Combine provided a follow-on OTA for TexPower, a small technology business in Texas. The xTech Innovation Combine Advanced Energy Storage Challenge is happening now, and winners will have the opportunity to receive up to $500K in follow-on OTA agreements. Further details about TexPower’s win and the current Innovation Combine are highlighted below.
While the xTech Program has typically utilized the SBIR and OTA vehicles in past competitions, STTR, CRADAs, BAAs, or traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based vehicles are also available as possible means to leverage follow-on work with the Army.
While STTR is similar to SBIR in its partnership with small businesses to integrate R&D solutions into the Army space, STTR requires participation from universities, federally funded R&D centers, or other non-profit research institutions.
Using CRADAs and other partnership agreements, the Army assists industry and academic partners to enhance the development and distribution of disruptive technologies for the Warfighter. And finally, through a BAA, the private sector, including large businesses, can respond to continuously open solicitations to increase knowledge or the practical application of science technologies.
For more detailed information on these various mechanisms and which might be applicable to your business, reference the ASA(ALT) Industry Opportunities Guide. Details on prize authorities Title 10 USC 2374a and Title 15 USC 3719 are also available for prospective businesses and Army customers.
REAL-TIME OPPORTUNITIES FOR REAL-TIME BUSINESSES
TexPower is a non-defense business, founded in 2019, with a technology solution that earned them a win in last year’s Innovation Combine competition, in addition to a follow-on OTA agreement with the Army.
The company is a small start-up based out of the University of Texas at Austin, and has developed novel, cobalt-free, drop-in cathode materials for lithium batteries. Evan Erickson, TexPower CEO, explained that cobalt is expensive, toxic and mined primarily in central Africa. Because their solution is cobalt-free and a more affordable, higher energy material than commercial battery cathodes, it has extreme flexibility with its use and is applicable wherever portable power is required; for the Army’s purposes, this on the frontlines.
“When we first started, we had a concept of what we thought the Army would want,” Erickson said. “We were thinking along the lines of long-life, electric vehicle-type batteries. But what the military wants is really long mission times, so their priority is really high energy density.”
With the assistance of an OTA agreement, TexPower has been able to provide the Army with their needs and broaden their reach with other organizations. Erickson explained that the company is now in scale-up mode, with the Innovation Combine pushing them forward with invaluable funding, new connections and learning how to navigate within the Department of Defense.
Because grants cannot cover costs associated with patents, legal fees and some large equipment, he noted that the funding from xTech was instrumental to their current success. “I don’t think we would have survived without it,” said Erickson.
From the position of TexPower and many other innovators, xTech is a friendly front door to the USG for non-defense organizations and helps to navigate the Army’s vast network of opportunities.
AT THE END OF THE DAY, XTECH OFFERS MORE THAN CONTRACTS
There are also major benefits associated with xTech Program because they recognize the Army’s call to integrate new innovators into their technology realm, while providing mentorship and expertise to accelerate and transition technologies of interest into the defense ecosystem. The culmination of these activities leads to the alignment of their solutions with real Army users.
Potential Army customers are also encouraged to participate in the xTech Program when they have a particular technology need. Dependent on the type of business or industry, including, small, large and academic, the Army can utilize one of the contract mechanisms above to engage the private sector.
“It’s critical that the Army look at the bigger picture when it comes to acquisition and engagement strategies,” Dr. Willis said. “The Army must be proactive – this means foreseeing where solutions are needed and encouraging our internal defense customers to work with ASA(ALT) for a successful transition into the hands of our nation’s Soldiers.”
XTECH KEEPS MOVING TOWARD THE FUTURE
One of the latest xTech competitions to open, in partnership with the Army Futures Command (AFC), is the Innovation Combine Advanced Energy Storage challenge, which falls under the Title 10 USC prize authority and will, therefore, offer both prize money and follow-on agreement potential.
This challenge aims to engage U.S.-based small and non-traditional businesses to propose their novel technologies related to battery management and safe, printable, conformal batteries that can be integrated into military equipment for greater reliability and accuracy. The Army is interested specifically in prototypes that will last the duration of a 72-hour mission and that can be in the hands of the Warfighter in the near-term future.
Not only will the winners of the Innovation Combine receive substantial prize money, ranging from $5K to $25K , but the top two finalists will also be invited to submit a prototype proposal and the chance to earn up to $500K in funding through an OTA agreement. Winners are currently scheduled to be announced in July 2021.
The xTech Program isn’t your average prize competition; yes, prize money is a major incentive for participants, but the greater impact is what follows. Private sector businesses that are looking to break through in the defense industry are given that very opportunity, and in return, the Army can integrate new and innovative technology solutions into their workstreams.
Contracting and agreement mechanisms are available to most businesses participating under the Title 10 USC authority – whether they are small, large or even academia. For xTech competitions running as a Title 15 USC authority, while the contracts award isn’t included, the monetary prize pool is vast, and opportunities for networking and mentorship are available long after the competition wraps.
In addition to the Innovation Combine, several other xTech competitions will be launching in the 2021 calendar year, including the international xTechGlobal AI challenge.
You can learn more about the Innovation Combine, xTechGlobal AI and other upcoming competitions as they are announced on the xTech website.
Follow xTechSearch on Twitter at @xTechSearch to keep up with current and future news, or check out the program’s YouTube to hear firsthand from past competitors.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics & Technology) provides the American Soldier with a decisive advantage in any mission by developing, acquiring, fielding, and sustaining the world's finest equipment and services; and by leveraging technologies and capabilities to meet current and future Army needs.