Air Force looks to bridge 'valley of death' for small tech firms

The service's acquisition chief hopes to change how small businesses interact with the service through its innovative research program and eventually adopting the In-Q-Tel model.

Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics  at Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 16, 2019.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Chad Trujillo)
 

The Air Force's top buyer is looking to revamp how small businesses interact with the service through its innovative research program.

Will Roper, the Air Force's acquisition chief, said the U.S. government effectively created a technological "trench" that kept small businesses from transitioning their capabilities from the Small Business Innovative Research program without program dollars.

"There is no phase 3 funding that's allocated by Congress. That is where you have to have a program office working with you," Roper said during a 90-minute "ask me anything" event on AFVentures, the Air and Space Force's investment arm, Sept. 1. "We could've built a better process; we could have built a better bridge."

Roper called the lack of process a "trench" that fails to bridge funding accounts and can leave companies hanging. Instead, the acquisition chief said he wants to create more mechanisms that pair program dollars to SBIR recipients.

"That is typically what's happened to companies in the Small Business Innovation Research fund as a whole," he said, "it wasn't connected to the big acquisition system, the market that we represent. And that created a valley of death and so unfortunately the option that was left for many companies hitting the end of the SBIR pipeline was to be acquired by a prime and then ultimately that technology would be charged back to us, probably with a little higher rate than we would have gotten from a small business."

"So we are endeavoring to fix that, that's why we've got a separate matching [program and investment dollar] paradigm for defense unique companies" to ensure the tech is commercially viable.

Roper also said he hopes to get more authorities and mimic the Intelligence Community's venture capital structure to get involved with promising companies at an early stage.

"What I hope we do in the future, beyond the authority we have now is explore greater authorities -- things like the In-Q-Tel model," Roper said. That means owning equity, issuing emergency contracts and funding to "avoid procurements that maybe aren't' in a company's best interest or are maybe adversarial in nature."

"There's a deeper level of competition that we can achieve but we need a deeper level of authority to achieve it."

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