DoD Innovation Ecosystem
The commercial market is a key source of innovative solutions to solve the Department’s toughest problems. The DoD has a vast collection of opportunities to leverage innovation occurring among entrepreneurs and non-traditional vendors. The DoD Innovation Ecosystem organizations seek to find and explore the latest advances in dual use technologies that are needed for the future fighting force such as artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, augmented reality, autonomy, quantum computing, resilient networks, swarming, human systems, space, and cybersecurity.
Transitioning commercial technology at scale, especially those solutions requiring experimentation and maturation, to a program of record is still a work in progress. There are still chasms between those who seek to understand the potential (the innovation ecosystem organizations) and those who enable program insertion (DoD program offices).
This page provides insight for those navigating the DoD innovation ecosystem to help make those critical connections between solution providers and government acquirers so that more commercial cutting-edge solutions can be scaled to meet user requirements.
The innovation organizations currently known to the authors are described below. Omissions are unintentional, and we will update when new organizations are brought to our attention.
OSD: DARPA | Defense Innovation Marketplace | Defense Innovation Unit | DreamPort | DEFENSEWERX | DoD Labs | Doolittle Institute | ERDCWERX |
MGMWERX | National Security Innovation Capital | National Security Innovation Network | Other Transaction Consortia | Rapid Innovation Fund |
Rapid Reaction Technology Office | SOFWERX
Air Force:|Air Force Research Lab | AFWERX | Allied Space Accelerator | Catalyst Accelerator | DAF MIT AI Accelerator |
Hyperspace Challenge | Starburst Accelerator | STRIKEWERX | T3 Accelerator
Army: Army Applications Lab | Army Research Lab | Army SBIR/STTR | xTechsearch
Navy: Marine Innovation Unit | Naval Research Lab | NavalX | Navy SBIR/STTR | Non-DoD: Challenge.gov | IQT
The following characterizations are an attempt to classify the offerings of the organizations profiled on this page:
Accelerator. Accelerators offer competitive and structured programs focused on scaling the growth of an existing company. Accelerators typically provide some amount of seed money and a network of mentors. Programs are typically a few months in duration culminating in an opportunity to pitch to investors at the conclusion of the program.
Challenge. A challenge can be a single or recurring contest or competition aimed at solving problems where emerging technologies have the potential to provide non-traditional solutions, or to expand the pool of participants to address critical issues. Challenges may offer cash prizes or may be part of a broader Challenge-Based Acquisition (ChBA) strategy that may result in a government contract.
AFWERX | Challenge.gov | DreamPort | ERDCWERX | Hyperspace Challenge | MGMWERX | NSIN | SOFWERX | STRIKEWERX xTechsearch
Connector. The objective of connector organizations is to build networks and create relationships between government organizations, industry, private equity firms, and academia to facilitate partnerships to solve challenging problems by generating new solutions.
AFWERX | Defense Innovation Marketplace | DEFENSEWERX | Doolittle Institute | ERDCWERX | MGMWERX | NSIN | NavalX | RRTO | SOFWERX | STRIKEWERX
Funding Opportunity. Funding opportunities are offered by organizations that seek to invest in and enhance the chances of success of entities (often start-ups or small businesses) pursuing advancements in technology. These are not government contracts or agreements.
Government Contracting Authority. An organization with government contracting authority can execute contract awards or agreements for government projects. These organizations have warranted Contracting Officers who are authorized to execute awards and agreements on behalf of the government.
AFRL | AFWERX | Army Applications Lab | ARL | Army SBIR/STTR | DARPA | DIU | DoD Labs | DreamPort | NSIC | NRL | Navy SBIR/STTR | OT Consortia | RIF
Incubator. Incubators focus on start-up and entrepreneurial entities with innovative ideas. They may provide seed funding and a collaborative physical environment to grow ideas, brand identification, and business plans. Not-for-profit and government or university operated incubators seek to enhance the economy and/or advance the state of the art of the US industrial base for government stakeholders.
Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Innovation Organizations
Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) accelerates adoption of commercial technology throughout the military and growing the national security innovation base. DIU partners with organizations across the Department of Defense, from the services and components to combatant commands and defense agencies, to rapidly prototype and field advanced commercial solutions that address national security challenges.
DIU aims to move from problem identification to prototype contract award in 60–90 days. Prototype projects typically run from 12–24 months and are awarded through a competitive Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) process. DIU awards prototype Other Transaction (OT) agreements, enabling a non-competitive follow-on production OT agreement or FAR-based contract following a successful prototype.
- Artificial Intelligence
- Human Systems
Additional Information: Contact DIU about a mission-critical challenge your organization is facing. DUI will explore next steps if you can offer a dedicated DIU liaison and funding to prototype solutions. The DIU team works with you to translate your challenge into a competitive, commercial solicitation designed to deliver innovative proposals. DUI will solicit commercial solutions, and award contracts for one or more prototype projects and begin to chart a path toward technology adoption. After a successful prototype, your organization or any interested DoD entity will have sole source justification to enter into follow-on production contracts or agreements to procure the prototyped solution(s).
National Security Innovation Capital (NSIC) is a new DoD initiative that enables dual-use hardware startups to advance key milestones in their product development by addressing the shortfall of private investment from trusted sources. NSIC reports to Defense Innovation Unit leadership and operates distinctly from its sister organization, National Security Innovation Network, and core DIU. NSIC is focused specifically on hardware technologies in the early stages of development or pre-production (e.g. TRL 3 or higher).
Highlights: NSIC awards Other Transaction (OT) agreements to accelerate productization efforts. NSIC seeks to engage domestic startups that are developing dual-use hardware products with both commercial and defense applications. Startups may span early stage (at least proof of concept-TRL3 or higher) to late stage (pre-production).
NSIC is focused on next-generation hardware technologies for application to connected mobile and edge systems that support distributed operations in land, sea, air, and space domains.
Additional Information: NSIC funding is primarily targeted towards hardware-based products and their associated technologies. Software-oriented aspects may be part of the product design, test, operation, and support, but it should not be the primary focus of the development. Such hardware-based products can be sold stand-alone or as the basis of a service or solution.
National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) is a problem-solving network that adapts to the emerging needs of those who serve in the defense of national security.
NSIN brings together defense, academic, and entrepreneurial innovators to solve national security problems in new ways.
- Acceleration: identifies startups emerging from the academic and the venture communities that can address DoD problems in innovative ways.
- Collaboration: facilitates collision events that connect service members with academic and non-traditional partners to develop and prototype new solutions to solve national security problems.
- National Service: focus on building models of service that account for generational and cultural differences between the military, academic, and venture communities, and that provide flexible pathways to official service within the DoD.
- Transition Cell: offers post-NSIN programming support to alumni teams and companies.
NSIN Defense Innovation Foundry
The NSIN Defense Innovation Foundry, powered by FedTech, matches breakthrough Department of Defense (DoD) lab technologies with teams of entrepreneurs during intensive, six-month cohorts to solve the real-world problems of DoD and commercial customers.
DreamPort is a cyber innovation, collaboration, and prototyping facility located in Columbia, MD. It was created by USCYBERCOM through a Partnership Intermediary Agreement awarded to the Maryland Innovation and Security Institute (MISI).
DreamPort was created in partnership with US Cyber Command as a non-government owned or operated independent facility for the purpose of applying MISI’s cyber Mission Accelerator® methodology to provide US Cyber Command, its cyber national mission forces and partners with continuous cyber capability innovation. Dreamport provides Challenge Problems that guide capability focus areas.
DreamPort conducts Rapid Prototyping Events (RPE), similar to a hackathon, with the purpose of gathering of subject matter experts committed to looking for new ways to solve a particular challenge. The subject matter experts can work alone, in teams, or as one collective group and are encouraged to not allow previous failures, standards, processes, and other impediment get in the way of breakthrough solutions and ideas. They are encouraged to identify and take risks that yield unexpected success. Unlike a hackathon, RPEs aren’t limited to software challenges. The goal of an RPE is to create a useable prototype. These prototypes can be software code snippets, modified Internet of Things devices, plastics created in a 3D printer, or interesting robotic solutions to solve a problem to name a few.
- Vulnerabilities and Exploits
- Network Security, Monitoring, and Visualization
- Modeling and Predictive Analytics
- Persona and Identity
- Permeability and Agility Across Domains
- Infrastructure and Transport
Additional Information: DreamPort collaborates to host events (Event Request form and email to firstname.lastname@example.org) that align with it’s focus areas and support US Cyber Command requirements and challenge problems. See Upcoming Events page.
DEFENSEWERX connects a national network of individuals, businesses, academia, and government organizations to enable creative and integrated solutions for DoD customers. DEFENSEWERX acts as a super connector by assessing DoD customer needs and linking the right expertise to create successful outcomes and optimize results to expanding the capabilities and strategic supremacy of today’s warfighters.
DEFENSEWERX is the overarching entity for a family of Innovation Hubs – each focused on technology and innovation leveraging local businesses and innovators.
The Doolittle Institute an Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) Innovation Institute supporting the AFRL Munitions Directorate to commercialize AFRL technologies in the private sector, enable rapid technology delivery to the warfighter, and identify and foster new research & development (R&D) partnerships.
The Doolittle Institute works with AFRL contacts within the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
Additional Information: Learn about small business technologies under development for the DoD at Pitch Day events. Pitch Days can be used for “same day” SBIR and STTR contract awards. Public Brochure
SOFWERX is a platform that helps solve challenging Warfighter problems at scale through collaboration, ideation, events and rapid prototyping. Chartered to: create and maintain a platform to accelerate delivery of innovative capabilities to US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and facilitate capability refinement through exploration, experimentation, and assessment of promising technology.
The SOFWERX ecosystem is comprised of industry, Labs, academia, and government stakeholders. When USSOCOM brings a Warfighter problem to SOFWERX, the SOFWERX team alerts the ecosystem participants via email about the opportunity and how they can participate. There is no fee to be a member of the SOFWERX ecosystem. Join the ecosystem here.
The Foundry (located within the SOFWERX facility in Tampa, FL) is a rapid prototyping workshop containing the following capabilities:
- Iron Worker
- Manual Lathe/Mill
- CNC Lathe/Mill
- Plasma Cutter
- Horizontal Bandsaw
- Hydraulic Compress Break
- Drill Press
- 3D Printers
MGMWERX is an initiative of the Air Force to fast track solutions and enhance capabilities through deployed solutions. MGMWERX augments Air University programs to enhance production of high-quality, innovative research and ideas that span issues of importance to the Air Force. This can include: doctrine, strategies, capability needs, operational concepts, training, education, and science and technology.
MGMWERX is constantly assessing the landscape in the areas of defense, innovation, and adult education. Awareness of the latest technologies allows MGMWERX to scout the most promising technologists for concepts, prototypes, or commercially available technologies that can be leveraged as solutions for the warfighter. Using research and development agreements, contracts, competitions, public-private partnerships, and other tools, MGMWERX can address Air Force innovation challenges while helping grow the circle of entrepreneurs and investors interested in working the strategic and technical challenges associated with maintaining U.S. national security.
MGMWERX Challenge is the combination of the defense, academic, startup and small business worlds to collaborate through challenges and live events.
- Most challenges are open, seeking to facilitate dialogue and collaboration, participants can usually see, comment, rate and community vote on each other’s submissions.
- Using research and development agreements, contracts, competitions, public-private partnerships, and other tools, MGMWERX can address Air Force innovation challenges while helping grow the circle of entrepreneurs and investors interested in working the strategic and technical challenges associated with maintaining U.S. national security.
Additional Information: email@example.com
ERDCWERX has tools to empower small businesses, entrepreneurs, and academia to identify new partnerships for innovation and commercialization with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in military engineering, environmental quality and inspections, civil works and water resources, geospatial research and engineering, and engineered resilient systems.
ERDCWERX partnership benefits the ERDC by:
- Driving technologies faster, more cost effectively, and through more channels to meet warfighter needs, accelerating tech transition
- Identifying new opportunities for collaboration, leveraging ERDC technologies, IP portfolios, and unique testing & facility capabilities
- Solving complex technical challenges, finding new solution providers; structuring partnerships and facilitating technology transfer opportunities
- Creating new business environments, enabling the ERDC to do tasks that are difficult or impossible inside the fence, discovering unrealized opportunities that convert innovation into valued outcomes
ERDCWERX events and tech challenges are used as a way to solve challenging Warfighter problems for the ERDC. Individuals, startups, small businesses, large enterprises, academics, and research labs are invited to submit solutions to specific tech challenges launched by ERDCWERX in collaboration with the ERDC.
Additional Information: www.erdcwerx.org
The Rapid Reaction Technology Office (RRTO) develops prototypes and hosts technology demonstrations to increase the speed from idea to developed capability, leading to a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force.
- Seeks innovative ideas from small businesses; traditional and non-traditional performers; academia; Combatant Commands (CCMDs); DoD Services; government labs; Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) & University Affiliated Research Centers (UARCs)
- Proposals accepted on a rolling basis
- Streamlined process for funding consideration
- Awards made throughout the year of execution
The RRTO executes three categories of projects:
Emerging Capabilities Tech Development (ECTD)
- Conceptual prototypes aligned with the “Road to Dominance” modernization plan
- Pursues risk-reducing technology prototypes and demonstrations of cutting-edge land, sea, air, and space systems for the Joint Warfighter
- Demonstrates art of the possible; project duration < 36 months, project awards < $6M
- Rolling start during execution year accelerates cycle of innovation
Quick Reaction Special Projects (QRSP)
- Operational prototypes that deliver quick wins to the warfighter
- Matures emerging technologies for operational use by the Joint Warfighter
- Delivers innovative prototypes to help address immediate needs; project duration 12-18 months, project awards < $1M
- Rolling start during execution year to increase speed of delivery
Rapid Prototyping Program (RPP)
- Operational Prototypes that accelerate innovation within Services’ programs
- Develops prototypes that drive down risk and foster creative operating concepts
- Anticipate and respond to emergent Service and Agency issues and time-sensitive threats by selecting projects within the year of execution
Technology areas reflect National Defense Strategy and Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering (USD R&E) modernization priorities:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Directed Energy
- Fully Networked Command Control and Communications (FNC3)
Additional Information: RRTO overview
- Quantum Science
The Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) provides a collaborative vehicle for small businesses to provide the department with innovative technologies that can be rapidly inserted into acquisition programs that meet specific defense needs. RIF is administered by the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD(R&E)) Small Business and Technology Partnerships (SBTP).
Project cost and schedule limitations:
- Limited to two years of funding
- Cost no more than $3 million
- Satisfy an operational or national security need
- Accelerate or enhance military capability
- In support of major defense acquisition program
- Stimulate innovative technologies
- Reduce acquisition / lifecycle costs
- Address technical risk
- Improve timeliness & thoroughness of test & evaluation outcomes
Preference for Small Business
- Awards to other than small business are allowed, but ONLY after the approval authority deems the offer is superior to an offer received from a small business
- Small Business Standard defined by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS)
- 541715: Research and Development in Physical, Engineering, and Life Sciences
- 541714: Research and Development in Biotechnology
- Participation by minorities and disadvantaged persons is encouraged
- Foreign participants and/or individuals may participate; some requirements may cover export-controlled technologies
Competitive Two-Step Process
- Issue Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) with DoD component requirements
- Industry Response: 3-page White Paper + Quad Chart
- Evaluations are “Go” or “No Go”
- Highest rated “Go” offerors invited to submit full proposals
- Further competition – invite for proposal DOES NOT guarantee an award
- Highest-rated proposals lead to award
Research topics are identified in the annual RIF Broad Agency Announcement. Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 6-9 are desired and required for majority of RIF awards to facilitate transition to defense acquisition programs.
Lower TRLs (4-5) are awarded by exception only if:
- Breakthrough capability or operational game-changer
- Cost neutral to the acquisition program
- Can be accommodated within program schedule
- GAO Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) Guide (GAO-20-48G), Jan 2020
- DoD Technology Readiness Assessment (TRA) Guidance, April 2011
- RIF Program Overview
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academia, industry (traditional, non-traditional, small business, and start-ups) and government partners to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options with military focus. For decades, this vibrant, interlocking ecosystem of diverse collaborators has proven to be a nurturing environment for the intense creativity that DARPA is designed to cultivate.
DARPA often awards prototype Other Transaction agreement awards under its Broad Agency Announcements (more info on the BAAs here). This enables the use of non-competitive follow-on production activities to successful prototype Other Transactions (more info on prototype OTs here).
DARPA executes an active Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program that provides small, high-tech businesses and academic institutions the opportunity to propose radical, innovative, high-risk approaches to address existing and emerging national security threats; thereby supporting DARPA’s overall strategy to bridge the gap between fundamental discoveries and the provision of new military capabilities (more info on SBIR and STTR programs and phases here). DARPA issues SBIR and STTR funding opportunities on a “just-in-time” basis, outside of the three pre-determined announcements issued at the DoD level. SBIR awards can made under a SBIR/STTR Broad Agency Announcement or Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) construct (more info on CSO here).
The DARPA SBIR/STTR Transition & Commercialization Support Program (TCSP) is designed to support transition and commercialization planning activities for DARPA-funded SBIR/STTR projects.
The TCSP goal is to maximize the potential for SBIR/STTR companies to move their technology beyond Phase II, and into other research and development programs for further maturity, or into solutions or products for DoD acquisition programs, other Federal programs, and/or the commercial market.
Rethink Complex Military Systems
To help enable faster development and integration of breakthrough military capabilities in today’s rapidly shifting landscape, DARPA is working to:
- Make weapons systems more modular and easily upgraded and improved
- Assure superiority in the air, maritime, ground, space and cyber domains
- Improve position, navigation and timing (PNT) without depending on the satellite-based Global Positioning System
- Augment defenses against terrorism
Master the Information Explosion
DARPA is developing novel approaches to deriving insights from massive datasets, with powerful big-data tools. The Agency is also developing technologies to ensure that the data and systems with which critical decisions are made are trustworthy, such as automated cyber defense capabilities and methods to create fundamentally more secure systems. And DARPA is addressing the growing need to ensure privacy at various levels of need without losing the national security value that comes from appropriate access to networked data.
Harness Biology as Technology
To leverage recent breakthroughs in neuroscience, immunology, genetics and related fields, DARPA in 2014 created its Biological Technologies Office, which has enabled a new level of momentum for the Agency’s portfolio of innovative, bio-based programs. DARPA’s work in this area includes programs to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases and master new neuro-technologies.
Expand the Technological Frontier
DARPA’s core work has always involved overcoming seemingly insurmountable physics and engineering barriers and, once showing those daunting problems to be tractable after all, applying new capabilities made possible by these breakthroughs directly to national security needs. Maintaining momentum in this essential specialty, DARPA is working to achieve new capabilities by:
- Applying deep mathematics
- Inventing new chemistries
- Processes and materials
- Harnessing quantum physics
DARPA SBIR/STTR Program
Transition and Commercialization (includes Transition & Commercialization Strategy Development Guide)
Defense Innovation Marketplace is a resource enabling communication about DoD investment priorities to help industry better plan Independent Research & Development (IR&D) investment projects.
Links to Science & Technology strategy focused Communities of Interest and upcoming and past Technical Interchange Meetings, and long range National Security planning information.
- Advanced Electronics
- Air Platforms
- Biomedical Asbrem
- Directed Energy
- Electronic Warfare
- Energy and Power Technologies
- Engineered Resilient Systems
- Ground and Sea Platforms
- Human Systems
- Kinetic Weapons
- Materials and Manufacturing Processes
Additional Information: The Communities of Interest (CoIs) were established as a mechanism to encourage multi-agency coordination and collaboration in cross-cutting technology focus areas with broad multiple Component investment.
DoD Laboratories are designated by either the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or by the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD R&E) and have unique funding flexibilities, authorities, and contractual vehicles available to them. For example, labs can execute Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) to facilitate tech transfer between government and industry. This enables industry to further develop technology that originated in a DoD lab.
Additional Information: A list of DoD Labs, with descriptions and webpage links, is available on the USD R&E page.
Examples of DoD Labs
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) leads the discovery, development and delivery of warfighting technologies for air, space and cyberspace forces. ARFL is pushing the boundaries and creating a new tomorrow through unparalleled research.
The AFRL, on behalf of the Department of the Air Force, is developing an innovative business process to connect potential partners seeking to collaborate with the Air Force and Space Force science and technology (S&T) enterprise through a virtual front door, AirForceTechConnect.
- Air Force Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy
- Air Force Vanguards
- Aerospace Systems
- Materials and Manufacturing
- Basic Research
- Directed Energy
- Human Performance
- Artificial Intelligence
How to engage:
Air Force Challenge
The Air Force Vice Chief of Staff is challenging Airmen, academia and industry to enhance Multi-Domain Operations, which integrates joint and coalition capabilities across all military operations. In a world dominated by rapid innovation, can you look around and find a better way to establish situational awareness, develop courses of action, or deliver effects at unmatched speed? Accept the Challenge by registering for the new U.S. Air Force Ideation Platform.
Check out the AFRL Maker Hubs at the Wright Brothers Institute in Dayton, Ohio and at Kirtland Air Force Base! The Maker Hub is AFRL’s maker space that leverages connectivity and innovation resources. Whether you want to explore new applications or product ideas, learn a new skill in a hands-on way, or create a tangible design to demonstrate your research, the Maker Hub is the place for you.
Now in it’s 10th iteration, the AFRL Commander’s challenge poses real-world problems to teams of 6-8 junior Air Force personnel from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds across the Air Force Material Command.
Are you an Airman with an innovative ideas to improve Air Force technology, processes or culture? Register for the Air Force’s ideation platform. Submit any ideas to the AF Spark Tank 2019 challenge and check out resources and educational materials on innovation.
TheArmy Research Laboratory (ARL) conducts foundational research in support of U.S. Army Modernization and is focused on disruptive science and technology (S&T) for the long term, performing research to answer the hardest S&T questions for future Army capabilities. This research is based on seven foundational research competencies as well as ten Essential Research Programs.
Foundational Research Competencies
- Ballistics Sciences
- Computational Sciences
- Human Sciences
- Materials and Manufacturing Sciences
- Network and Information Sciences
- Propulsion Sciences
- Protection Sciences
- Artificial Intelligence for Maneuver & Mobility (AIMM)
- Convergence of Lethality, Protection & Autonomy to Dominate Ground Combat (CONVERGE)
- Foundational Research for Electronic Warfare in Multi-Domain Operations (FREEDOM)
- Human Autonomy Teaming (HAT)
- Long Range Distributed & Collaborative Engagements (LRDC)
- Physics of Soldier Protection to Defeat Evolving Threats
- Quantum Information Sciences – Position Navigation & Timing (QIS-PNT)
- Science of Additive Manufacturing for Next Generation Munitions
- Transformational Synbio for Military Environments (TRANSFORME)
- Versatile Tactical Power and Propulsion (VICTOR)
Additional Information: ARL Locations and Facilities
- Information Technology
- Optical Sciences
- Tactical Electronic Warfare
- Space System Development
- Spacecraft Engineering
Materials Science and Component Technology
- Computational Physics & Fluid Dynamics
- Material Science & Technology
- Plasma Physics
- Electronics Science & Technology
- Biomolecular Science & Engineering
The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) provides the advanced scientific capabilities required to bolster our country’s position of global naval leadership. Here, in an environment where the nation’s best scientists and engineers are inspired to pursue their passion, everyone is focused on research that yields immediate and long-range applications in the defense of the United States.
Institute for Nanoscience: conducts highly innovative, interdisciplinary research at the intersections of the fields of materials, electronics and biology in the nanometer size domain.
Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research: provides specialized facilities to support highly innovative, multidisciplinary research in autonomous systems, including intelligent autonomy, human-autonomous system interaction and collaboration, sensor systems, power and energy systems, networking and communications, and platforms.
Air Force Innovation Organizations
AFWERX serves as an entry point for industry to do business with the Air Force. Supports the mission of making the Air Force more innovative by uncovering ideas and opportunities to improve the service, connecting ideas with legitimate solutions, and transitioning tools to the warfighter. AFWERX is a catalyst for agile Air Force engagement across industry, academia, and non-traditional contributors to create transformative opportunities and foster an Air Force culture of innovation.
How to engage:
- Join “The-Innovators” workspace on DoD Platform One’s chat to collaborate with our network.
- Join the Airmen Powered by Innovation (API) Ideation Platform and AFWERX Challenge platform
- Submit any innovative ideas for improving Air Force technology, processes or culture to campaigns like Spark Tank or various other local crowdsourcing campaigns on API’s platform or the AFWERX Challenge platform.
Resource: The Air Force Innovation Ecosystem Development Playbook
AFWERX Challenge is the combination of the defense, academic, startup, private sector, and small business worlds to collaborate through challenges and live events. Challenge is where individuals, startups, small businesses, large enterprises, academics and research labs submit solutions to specific challenges to solve problems for the U.S. Air Force (USAF).
How to engage: Whether you are an airman end user, technical expert, member from our sister services, program manager, acquisition professional, scientist, academic researcher or industry expert, there are many ways to get involved:
- Challenge Definition Workshop participant: Help us understand the problem we are trying to solve and the outcome we’re hoping to achieve.
- Solution provider: Submit your solution to help solve the problem and achieve the desired outcome.
- Solution evaluator: Contribute your subject matter expertise to help us select the best solutions.
- Showcase participant: Collaborate with solution providers and see the latest advanced technology and solutions in national security.
Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) The SBIR program enables small businesses to explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from its commercialization by partnering with Air Force units for customer discover purposes. AFWERX, in partnership with Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), and the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), developed the SBIR Open Topics to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and transition rate of the SBIR program.
Companies in Phase I of the program must locate an Air Force customer and sign a memorandum of agreement in order to move onto a Phase II, which establishes a partnership between the organizations with the intent to trial the product and adapt it according to the end-user’s needs. Following the trial run, the Air Force customers can decide if they would like to fund the product to move on to Phase III, which can be accomplished through a sole-source contract.
Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) The STTR program funds cooperative R&D projects with small businesses and non-profit U.S. research institutions.
(more info on SBIR and STTR programs and phases here)
Additional Information: AFWERX SBIR/STTR
Agility Prime is a non-traditional program seeking to accelerate the commercial market for advanced air mobility vehicles (i.e., “flying cars”). Leveraging unique testing resources and revenue generating government use cases for distributed logistics and disaster response, the government plans to mitigate current commercial market and regulatory risks.
Agility Prime also aims to bring together industry, investor, and government communities to establish safety and security standards while accelerating commercialization of this revolutionary technology.
The Innovative Capabilities Opening, establishes a rapid contracting mechanism beginning in 2020 with a “Race to Certification” series to drive government procurement of operational capability by 2023.
AFVentures harnesses the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to enable the Air Force to develop and adopt commercially viable innovations as integrated program components or operationally effective commercial off-the-shelf solutions while providing a competitive edge to the U.S. entrepreneur and technology ecosystem.
AFWERX Innovation Hubs
AFWERX Austin focuses on developing strategic partnerships with various government entities such as Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), Air Education and Training Command (AETC) Technology Integration Detachment, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOIS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to identify technological and procedural requirements.
Through these collaborations, AFWERX Austin is able to harness the developments in technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning, additive manufacturing, robotics, virtual reality, immersive learning technologies, and blockchain to strengthen the capabilities across nationwide defense organizations.
AFWERX Austin specializes in:
- Integrating innovative technologies with Air Force programs
- Augmented and virtual reality technologies for training
- Rapid testing and evaluation with Air Force stakeholders
AFWERX DC provides a public workspace for Air Force innovation and collaboration to identify and connect people and resources across government, industry, and academia in partnership with Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation (VT-ARC).
AFWERX DC specializes in:
- Indentifying and engaging experts to support Airmen innovation projects
- Forecasting and reporting on technology trends to inform the AFWERX team
- Building and managing a database of contributors interested in working with the Air Force
AFWERX Vegas has proximity to Nellis Air Force Base and the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) and is positioned to connect people and resources across government, the private sector, and academia. The Air Force supports and provides collaborative spaces and tools for innovation efforts.
AFWERX Vegas specializes in:
- Industry challenges which provide fast, non-bureaucratic pathways for Air Force stakeholders to scout the best solutions from industry and academia
- A prototyping workshop where Airmen, students, or garage tinkerers build and test technologies
- Trained design thinking facilitators who convene subject-matter experts from the Air Force, industry and academia to support Airmen intrapreneurs
- Event and office space for Air Force teams or entrepreneurs
Accelerators and Incubators
Air Force Technology Accelerators provide startup companies with education, resources, mentorship, and access to investors and customers in order to bolster those companies’ likelihood of success. In 2017, the Air Force began sponsoring accelerators to attract high-quality companies and to facilitate collaboration opportunities between those companies and their potential Air Force customers.
AFWERX sponsors a flagship accelerator each year to improve upon and draw awareness to the tool, but Technology Accelerators can be leveraged by any USAF Program Manager to scout and validate emerging technologies in their mission area.
The Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars is a 3-month, in-residence Accelerator in Boston that focuses on commercially viable startups with dual-purpose technologies – a private sector application as well as government application; though startups with innovative solutions in any dual-purpose industry are encouraged to apply, specific areas of interest change each year.
Techstars offers funding, mentorship, and access to the Techstars network for life. The program culminates in a demo day where angel investors and venture capitalists participate.
AFWERX partners with the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and Techstars to offer the The Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars to engage with the non-DoD innovation ecosystem to access startup inventors with disruptive new technologies and deliver commercially viable solutions to the warfighter in an accelerated timeframe.
The Air Force brings a wealth of business opportunities, especially for high-risk early enterprises. They also have subject matter expertise and global reach.
Techstars Allied Space Accelerator is a virtual accelerator program interested in the next generation of space technologies with a concentration on companies in the commercial space industry.
The program is run in partnership with the United States Air Force, the Netherlands Ministry of Defense, the Norwegian Space Agency and the Norwegian Ministry of Defense.
Similar to other Techstars accelerator programs, but operates in a predominantly virtual manner that will not require participating companies to relocate to a physical hub for the duration of the 13-week program. Alternatively, participating companies partake in the program through a heavily digital experience complemented by three 1-week on-site visits with the accelerator’s governmental partners. During these in-person week-long sessions, founders convene to work together, build camaraderie, connect with mentors and foster relationships with the partners.
- Geospatial analytics
- Satellite servicing
- Space situational awareness
- Resilient communications
- AI in space
- And others
Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator, a Los Angeles-based program, focuses on the next generation of space technology companies and related frontier technologies. Startup companies in commercial space or that are developing related technologies are encouraged to apply.
This program is the first of its kind, bringing together industrial, military, and civil space leaders to support entrepreneurs disrupting the space industry. The program consortium includes: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin, Maxar Technologies, SAIC, and Israel Aerospace Industries North America.
Through commercial partnerships, grants, and pilots, partners also provide the early customer traction and validation that allows Accelerator companies to reach the next level in their growth.
Technology areas: Just as technologies developed for the space industry have found their way into other uses (velcro, GPS, freeze drying, LASIK, dustbusters), the space industry is similarly looking to adapt and partner with commercial technologies.
Starburst is interested in relevant technologies developed for industries as diverse as automotive, agriculture, mining, energy, and industrial manufacturing and is especially excited to invest in companies with novel applications in artificial intelligence. Examples of broader enabling technologies for investment include:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Design and collaboration tools
- Autonomous systems
- Terrestrial navigation
- Advanced manufacturing
- Edge computing and big data processing
- Power systems (including energy generation, storage, and management)
Catalyst Space Accelerator, sponsored by the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate, is a defense and national security industry accelerator, headquartered on the Catalyst Campus for Technology and Innovation in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Catalyst Space Accelerator is designed to increase the Air Force’s awareness and rapid acquisition of commercial dual-use space technology by providing relevant business development training to Accelerator companies and connecting these Entrepreneurs with users, decision makers, and potential new customers in the DoD and commercial realms.
Catalyst Campus for Technology & Innovation is a collaborative ecosystem where industry, small business, workforce training, entrepreneurs, startups and venture capital intersect with Colorado’s aerospace and defense industry to create community, spark innovation and stimulate business growth. Program offers a semi-residential 12-week program for second stage businesses and includes office space, investment, Air Force liaisons, subject matter experts, a collaborative ecosystem, and resources necessary to nurture the next level of innovation.
The program culminates in a Demo Day with Government and Commercial investors, NewSpace champions, industry experts, venture capitalists, and others. Participating companies are funded $12-15K to participate in the accelerator. This funding is provided by a grant from a Corporate Sponsor or seed funding by a private investment organization.
- Cyber for Space Applications
- Data Fusion for Space Applications
- Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
- Resilient Commercial Space Communications
- Positioning, Navigation, and Timing
- Terrestrial Weather
Department of the Air Force Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator (DAF MIT AI Accelerator) aims aim to create a state-of-the-art, end-to-end, sustainable pipeline for Artificial Intelligence technology to give the United States a competitive advantage in the defense and civilian sectors.
Combines the expertise and resources of MIT and the Air Force and Space Force to conduct fundamental research enabling rapid prototyping, scaling, and application of AI algorithms and systems. The AI Accelerator is designed to make fundamental advances in artificial intelligence that improve Air Force operations while also addressing broader societal needs. AI Accelerator research teams consist of interdisciplinary teams, including Airmen, that collaborate across different fields of AI to create new algorithms and tools. The Air Force plans to invest approximately $15 million per year as it builds upon its five-decade relationship with MIT
AI Accelerator Research Projects:
- Guardian Autonomy for Safe Decision Making
- Transferring Multi-Robot Learning through Virtual & Augmented Reality for Rapid Disaster Response
- Multimodal Vision for Synthetic Aperture Radar
- AI-Assisted Optimization of Training Schedules
- Fast AI: Data Center & Edge Computing
- Conversational Interaction for Unstructured Information Access and Language Learning
- The Earth Intelligence Engine
- Objective Performance Prediction & Optimization Using Physiological and Cognitive Metrics
- Robust Neural Differential Models for Navigation and Beyond
- AI-Enhanced Spectral Awareness and Interference Rejection
- AI Education Research: Know-Apply-Lead (KAL)
Additional Information: AI Accelerator Challenges
Hyperspace Challenge, powered by the Air Force Research Lab New Mexico and ABQid, brings together tech startups with government innovators to accelerate collaboration between commercial and government communities. Virtual and in-person program facilitates interactions between promising technologies and timely problems to increase rapid acquisition and contracting opportunities.
The Hyperspace team works with each government problem sponsor to confirm there is a pathway to purchasing/contracting at the end of Hyperspace Challenge, but cannot guarantee that challenge participants will win contracts or undergo rapid acquisition with government agencies. The Hyperspace team helps facilitate the government contracting process as new contracts are a primary goal of Hyperspace Challenge.
Startups who have participated in similar programs have gone on to contract or have their technology purchased by government users they met during their respective programs. Awards will be distributed as grants for the purpose of assisting the recipient in pursuing acquisition and/or contracting opportunities with Air Force or other government entities.
Hyperspace Challenge is one of many initiatives emerging as Space Technology Accelerators within the Air Force, and participating in the challenge brings companies into a network that also includes Colorado Springs and Los Angeles, as well as other programs focused on increasing the speed of innovation within the defense community.
STRIKEWERX Innovation Hub connects people and resources across government, industry, and academia to solve Air Force Global Strike Command’s most challenging problems.
STRIKEWERX provides collaborative space to give traditional and non-traditional industry partners – to include small businesses, start-ups, and academia – easy access to meet with Air Force leaders and Airmen to discuss needs, gaps, and requirements.
Industry: Through demonstration of prototypes and public challenge events, companies can showcase solutions to Air Force stakeholders within Global Strike Command and connect to technology within Air Force Global Strike Command that has commercial application.
Academia: Through technology transfer and innovative programming that spurs technical discussions, a community of innovative minds will facilitate a more agile, stronger Air Force.
- STRIKEWERX is the official “store front” to traditional and non-traditional industry partners to include small businesses, start-ups, and academia for Global Strike Command.
- STRIKEWERX leverages the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to make awards to small businesses and start-ups.
- Similar to AFWERX, STRIKEWERX hosts “challenge events” and limited-time engagements on single topics.
T3 Accelerator aims to reduce start-up barriers for small businesses working with the government through a 10-week intensive program. The Air Force is serious about attracting talented start-ups with warfighter solutions and contributing angel-investment-like funding to get these technologies to the warfighter faster.
The T3 Accelerator takes topics generated by the Air Force and examines them through a defense and commercial market lens. The ultimate goal of this program is to introduce SBIR-funded technologies into the marketplace by bridging the gap between traditional SBIR coaching and entrepreneurial training.
This Accelerator prepares participants for a “Direct to Phase II” application. This simply means obtaining a SBIR Phase I award is NOT a prerequisite for this Phase II application.
The Air Force is looking for startups and small businesses that are developing:
- Materials and manufacturing processes focused on low cost
- Reusable and minimal maintenance (attritable) structures
- Engines and sensors in autonomous unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and space systems
Army Innovation Organizations
Army Applications Lab To capitalize on opportunities for breakthrough research and development in key civil-military technology areas relevant to the Army’s modernization priorities, Army Futures Command (AFC) has established the Army Applications Lab (AAL) to capitalize on the extended marketplace of ideas in government, academia, industry, and civilian innovation ecosystems and lead the research and development of disruptive innovations – i.e., technology demonstrators and early-stage products that revolutionize Army capabilities and corresponding civilian industries and create a first-mover advantage for the Army across a full spectrum of missions. A key focus for AAL is to identify and transition new technologies, methodologies, and concepts related to:
- Translational Research: Approaches and methodologies that accelerate the Army’s innovation cycle through the translation of emerging technologies to Army capability objectives, including the Army’s six modernization priorities and associated programs and lines of effort
- Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies: Approaches and methodologies that are characterized by a fusion of technologies in the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Specific technologies of interest include robotics; artificial intelligence; autonomy; augmented and virtual reality; nanotechnology; quantum information systems; synthetic biology and biotechnology; Internet of Things (IoT); space systems; advanced networking, communications, and command and control technology; additive manufacturing; and power and energy systems
- Commercialization: Approaches and methodologies that support the research and development of dual-use solutions – i.e., solutions that support both emerging Army needs and scalable commercial markets
AAL solicits proposals and awards procurement contracts, grants, cooperative agreements, Technology Investment Agreements, and Other Transactions using a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA). There are two approaches AAL will use to engage with potential applicants under the BAA:
The three main lines of effort associated with the BAA are (1) discovery, (2) acceleration, and (3) translation of disruptive technology applications:
- Discovery of novel capability concepts that capitalize on emerging technologies and application insights from the widest possible range of sources
- Acceleration of disruptive applications of technology that delivers a 2-4 times improvement over current or planned Army capabilities through the research, development, and validation of technology demonstrators
- Translation of breakthrough innovations that create a scalable, first-mover advantage for the Army in strategic technology areas by synchronizing knowledge generated in the discovery and acceleration phases with key decision points across the Army Future Force Modernization Enterprise (FFME).
Technology areas: AFC is seeking novel ideas or application of the following technologies (and others) across a wide range of ongoing focus areas.
The xTechSearch competition was launched to revolutionize the way the Army attracts and encourages innovation. The xTechSearch competition engages the non-defense business sector and start-up technology companies, with the Army Science and Technology ecosystem to leverage cutting edge technologies.
xTechSearch is sponsored by the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)), targeting small businesses to uncover novel dual-use science and technology solutions. The xTech Program manages the Army’s prize competitions to award and accelerate innovative technology solutions that can help solve Army challenges.
The xTechSearch program provides increasing non-dilutive seed prizes to select small businesses to proceed in the competition. Ultimately, 10 small business finalists will receive awards of $120,000 each and be invited to demonstrate a proof-of-concept of their dual-use technologies at an Association of the United States Army (AUSA) conference. A grand prize winner will be selected and awarded an additional $250,000 prize. In addition to the prizes, the xTechSearch program will provide education, mentorship, and networking opportunities to help integrate small businesses into the Army science and technology ecosystem.
The xTech Accelerator program is designed to help xTechSearch winners be successful via education, mentoring, networking, and community building. This program is available to xTechSearch finalists. The ultimate goals of the xTech Accelerator are:
- Develop xTech winners as quickly as possible
- Transition technologies to the warfighter
- Provide guidance on product development for dual-use technology
Additional Information: Resources
Army SBIR/STTR Program The Army Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs allow small, high-tech US businesses (less than 500 employees) and academia the opportunity to provide innovative research and development solutions in response to critical Army needs. By capturing the tremendous and agile talents of the US small business community, the SBIR and STTR programs benefit the DoD, the private sector, and our national economy.
The Army receives Phase I and Phase II proposals in response to SBIR and STTR topics that are published during specific solicitation periods throughout each fiscal year. Proposals are evaluated against published evaluation criteria and selected for award. Awards are made pending completion of successful negotiations with the small businesses and availability of funds. Leverages DoD SBIR/STTR BAA announcements, usually 3 per year.
(more info on the SBIR and STTR programs and phases here)
- The goal of the dual-use SBIR program is to tap into the innovativeness and creativity of the small business community to help meet government R&D objectives. These small companies develop technologies, products, and services which they can then commercialize through sales in the private sector or back to the government.
- The Army participates with the Navy, Air Force, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), Missile Defense Agency (MDA), National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the Chemical Biological Defense Program under the overall DoD SBIR program; however, the Army program is autonomous in that it seeks to support Army-specific goals within the framework of the DoD SBIR program.
Additional Information: Army SBIR/STTR page. Army Application Lab (AAL) SBIR topics here.
Marine Innovation Unit (MIU) leverages existing Marine talent to address advanced technology challenges to accelerate the development of new capabilities.
MIU partners with Combat Development & Integration and Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to support the Secretary of the Navy, Commandant of the Marine Corps, and Major Subordinate Commanders to accelerate advanced technology development for the Marine Corps.
- Artificial Intelligence
- Advanced Manufacturing
- Autonomy and Robotics
- Big Data
- Energy and Materials
- Human Systems
- Quantum Computing
- Supply Chain
- Synthetic Biology
Additional Information: New organization…more to come!
Non-DoD Innovation Organizations
IQT invests in commercially-focused, venture capital-backed startups to identify and adapt “ready-soon” technology: off-the-shelf products that can be modified, tested, and delivered for use to the intelligence and defense community within 6 to 36 months. IQT’s partners include the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and Department of Defense, and others in the intelligence and defense communities. IQT works side-by-side with the venture capital community to identify cutting-edge technology that has the potential for commercial success and the potential for high national security impact.
- IQT identifies startups with the potential for high impact on national security and works closely with them to deliver new capabilities that our customers need to boost their technological edge.
- IQT investments typically range from $500,000 – $3 million, and are paired with a development agreement in which IQT and the company work together to adapt the technology to government customers’ needs. If the pilot of the technology goes well, government customers can buy the product directly from the company.
- Rapid product development
- Valuable product enhancements
- Lower initial and long-term costs to the national security community
IQT Labs identifies aspects of these problems that can be tackled quickly and open sourced, using lightweight and agile methods.
Collaborating with a broad ecosystem of experts from government, academia, and industry to experiment with emerging tools and prototype solutions, IQT Labs shares insights about technology ahead of the startup.
IQT Emerge connects the U.S. government innovation pipeline with entrepreneurship to support technology development for the national interest.
IQT Emerge will work with government agencies to identify early-stage technologies with the highest potential for commercial success. IQT Emerge will foster interactions and connections between the developers of that early stage technology and entrepreneurs earlier in the innovation pipeline and provide commercialization guidance and support, with a goal of increasing the likelihood for commercial success in support of U.S. national security efforts.
Challenge.gov is a web platform that assists federal agencies with inviting ideas and solutions directly from the public, or “crowdsourcing” and is the official hub for prize competitions and challenges across all federal government. Managed by the General Services Administration (GSA).
Challenge.gov enables the U.S. government to engage citizen-solvers in prize competitions for top ideas and concepts as well as breakthrough software, scientific, and technology solutions that help achieve their agency missions.
Challenges can generally be categorized into one of these seven types. These are broadly defined as the types of activities or outcomes that will be worked on or produced in your challenge.
Additional Information: Challenge and Prize Toolkit