Panel Members are Dr. Nathan Sharpes, Dr. Van Truskett, Dr. Matthew Willis, Dr, Evan Erikson, Mr. Wi
Panel Members are Dr. Nathan Sharpes, Dr. Van Truskett, Dr. Matthew Willis, Dr, Evan Erikson, Mr. Will Dickson, Mr. Mitch Jacobson (Photo Credit: Photo credit Patrick Hunter) VIEW ORIGINAL

During the 2021 Advanced Technology Summit, Army researchers and tech industry partners shared insights on how individuals and companies can navigate from the initial cultivation of an idea to the development and sale of a viable product — a feat many fledgling tech innovators and small businesses have described as confusing and intimidating, particularly when working with a government client for the first time.

A panel of leaders from tech startup TexPower, venture builder and accelerator FedTech, the University of Texas at Austin, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology detailed some of the barriers and opportunities encountered by entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs in the emerging technology space.

Beginning at the university level, it is not uncommon for a postgraduate student in a scientific research field to describe ultimate success as the publication of their research in a scientific journal, rather than development of their discovery into a practical tool.

“First, you have to understand that there is this world of entrepreneurship and commercialization that you can do, and this mindset isn’t very well-trained in you as a scientist,” explained Dr. Evan Erickson, CEO of TexPower. “Coming from academia, you think okay: write a paper, get citations, that’s the goal.”

Erickson co-founded TexPower after working as a University of Texas research fellow, and the Army awarded the 2020 Innovation Combine grand prize to his startup for its groundbreaking work on cobalt-free lithium-ion battery technology.

Erickson and other panelists discussed how encouraging students and researchers to strive for success beyond the academic realm, including by thinking critically about how discoveries could be applied to commercial interests and defense sector needs, could increase the implementation and market success rate of new technologies.

“One of the things we are doing on campus is talking about the difference between entrepreneurship and technology commercialization,” noted Dr. Van Truskett of the University of Texas, who described clarifying the distinction as an important step in the lab to commercialization process. Truskett directs the Texas Innovation Center, which serves as the university’s hub for bringing engineering and science discoveries and technologies to the market. The panel highlighted how engineers and scientists may have advanced experience with ideating and experimenting but less experience with the mechanics of delivering inventions to potential users.

Panelists pointed out that a growing number of organizations are seeking to bolster innovation outcomes by providing savvy business and technical support to startups. In addition, many end users of new technologies, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Energy, are sponsoring prize competitions to stimulate new research directed at solving persistent problems.

“It’s interesting because a lot of times the resources are out there somewhere, you just don’t know about them,” said Will Dickson, Director at FedTech, referring to the diversity of support — from mentorship to education to capital — available to entrepreneurs. FedTech has facilitated the growth of numerous startups by connecting entrepreneurs with market-oriented opportunities, education and resources.

The panel went on to underscore that bringing innovations to scale is still a frequent challenge, as is locating ample research laboratory space at an affordable cost and timing project submissions strategically with government requests for proposals. However, small businesses can improve their chances of commercialization success by specializing in areas in which they excel, as well as tapping into multiple innovation networks. Complementary Advanced Technology Summit discussions also included suggestions for small businesses to diversify their customer base, adhere closely to specified proposal requirements and validate precise technology needs.

The Army is trying to be “as deliberate as possible to use all of the authorities that are out there, to really recognize that there is true innovation occurring in small businesses and in the technology sectors,” summarized Dr. Matthew Willis, Director of the Army’s Applied Small Business Innovation Research and Prize Competitions. Army initiatives such as prize competitions and other mechanisms are designed to “make it easier for small businesses to work with us,” but small businesses should also not hesitate to try a number of avenues and attempts to further the development of their ideas and products.