WASHINGTON – The innovation lifecycle begins when a creative idea is planted as a seed and given the right resources to help it grow.
In August 2021, the U.S. Army’s xTech Program launched a unique event — the Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions Faculty Competition — to identify and fund a diverse group of innovators who are historically underrepresented in the S&T community to plant their seeds of innovation across the Army science and technology landscape.
A diverse S&T talent pool
Led by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, the xTech Program awards cash prizes and contracts to accelerate transformative technologies from non-traditional partners to enhance Soldier readiness and modernization.
xTechHBCU Faculty was the first competition in the program’s history to target and fund research from this diverse group of innovators from the S&T talent pool. More than 80 HBCU and MSI faculty members shared their research with the Army for future application and to potentially earn cash prizes to continue their projects.
Dr. Travis King, director of basic research and science, technology, engineering and math in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology, is a champion for engaging underrepresented communities as valuable S&T resources for the Army. In his role, King oversees basic research investments and STEM outreach, including a partnership with xTechHBCU, on behalf of Headquarters, Department of the Army.
In winter 2021, King was brainstorming ways to expand S&T outreach to a broader community — namely, HBCUs and MSIs, who can bring their innovations to the table.
After researching viable options, xTech stood out as a way to engage those institutions and incentivize them by offering prize money, which ultimately led to the launch of the xTechHBCU Faculty competition.
“The Army has a strong interest in strengthening the nation’s research institutions, including those that are underrepresented,” King said. “The Army is always interested in a domestic source of scientists to solve technical challenges, and the more diverse perspectives we can get, the better. We’d like to get those voices in the conversation.”
The value of HBCU research
In January 2022, xTech named three winners of the HBCU Faculty competition: Howard University-Pritchett Lab, Jackson State University and University of Texas at San Antonio. Each team received $45,000 in cash prizes and the opportunity to submit for follow-on contract awards worth up to $150,000 each, through an Army Research Laboratory broad agency announcement. These awards, along with the networking provided through the xTech Accelerator program and partnerships that are a benefit of xTech participation, are helping to foster the growth of their research from creative ideas to eventual Army applications.
The winning teams had never worked with the Army prior to xTechHBCU, and the program was influential in getting their research off the ground for future Army application.
“Our team had the seed of an idea, but it hadn’t been fleshed out yet,” said Dr. Dominique Pritchett, who conducts research on the neurophysiology of cognition at Howard University. “xTech helped define the bigger vision of where our research should be going and provided a platform for shaping those ideas into a full proposal for the Army.”
Similarly, Dr. Nihar Pradhan from Jackson State University noted that participating in the xTech Program helped define their research on hybrid-thin polymer dielectrics and potential applications for the Army.
“Going through the xTech process and working with Army personnel actually changed the idea behind our proposal,” Pradhan said. “These connections gave us complete understanding of what the real Army mission is so we could align our proposal to what the Army is looking for.”
Dr. Palden Lama led the University of Texas at San Antonio and shared that the prize money from the competition jump-started the team’s research efforts on improving the security of artificial intelligence systems running on a resource-constrained edge environment.
“xTech provided opportunities to gather critical feedback from Army Research Office program managers, which was particularly helpful in refining our draft proposal to align with Army research priorities,” Lama said.
The success of all three universities as new and non-traditional Army partners foreshadows the impact that the research at HBCUs and MSIs could have in the future. xTech’s prize competition approach is also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Army’s optimization of a diverse talent pool.
A bright horizon for HBCU partnerships
The xTech Program is launching a second HBCU competition in fall 2022, this time for undergraduate students who want to solve Army problems, receive entrepreneurship training through the Accelerator Program and explore potential defense career paths. Eligible students will submit research proposals on climate change technology, health technology or artificial intelligence and machine learning, and will demonstrate how their research goes hand-in-hand with Army mission priorities.
Along with the xTech Program, King noted additional collaboration between the Army and HBCUs. The Faculty Immersion Program, in collaboration with Army Futures Command and the Army Engineer Research and Development Center, aims to enhance research capabilities and encourage broader HBCU participation from faculty researchers who want to work side-by-side with Army labs.
Participants spend time training at an Army laboratory and developing a research proposal, followed by training and education at a high-research output university. The culmination of the program is 18 months spent conducting their proposed research at their home institutions. Junior faculty from Georgia State University and Virginia State University participated in the inaugural program and are currently conducting research in Army labs; a second cohort will be announced this winter.
Another resource in the works is an HBCU and MSI researching, teaming and opportunities website, which will connect students, alumni and faculty to the Army’s S&T enterprise, enabling research teaming and innovation in support of Army modernization. The website is slated for launch in fall 2022 and will be a valuable tool for HBCUs to continue their interaction with the Army.
xTech connects the Department of Defense with eligible businesses and organizations with the intent to understand the spectrum of world-class technologies being developed commercially that may benefit DOD programs, integrate commercial innovators into the DoD science and technology ecosystem, and provide mentorship and expertise to accelerate, mature and transition technologies of interest to the government. xTech competitions provide participants with operationally relevant and technical feedback from Army experts and offer cash prizes to selected finalists, along with educational and development opportunities and direct exposure to key stakeholders.
The xTech Program holds several competitions per year, from open-topic competitions such as xTechSearch, to technology-specific competitions targeting specific Army needs and challenges. For all competition information, go to https://www.xtechsearch.army.mil/.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and 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. For more information, go to https://www.army.mil/asaalt/.