On April 8, 2021, the Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment (APEX) program, managed by Parallax Advanced Research, hosted a virtual Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) Collider to showcase curriculum for use by small businesses and academics on the journey to submitting a proposal for U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs funding. The webinar also provided information on the Parallax Learning Hub which is a centralized and user-friendly resource for all learning activities (courses, etc.) offered by Parallax and its programs. The Hub also enables 24/7/365 access to online courses and a suite of other learning modalities. The MOOC is hosted within the Parallax Learning Hub. APEX’s organizational and workforce development and process navigation services were also covered during the event and each presentation was followed by a Q&A with the audience. Speakers of the event included Air Force Research Laboratory Director of Small Business Mr. Brian McJilton, APEX Executive Director Ms. Mary Margaret Evans, APEX Director of Education and Training Dr. Dave Rude and APEX SBIR/STTR Program Director Mr. Dave Nestic.
Below are key timestamps throughout the event:
[00:03:55-00:14:17]: Keynote by Mr. Brian McJilton
Mr. McJilton introduces the APEX MOOC Collider and provides information on the past and current struggles of small businesses trying to collaborate with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Air Force. He talks about the Air Force Science & Technology 2030 Initiative and technological events he has led and participated in that help facilitate easier interaction between academia, industry, and the DoD.
[00:09:00-00:11:10] Q: What's one area of advice you would give to small businesses to better respond to government opportunities?
A: Training and connection are two key methods to better understand the needs of the Air Force. Taking advantage of training opportunities like collider events that give insight into the needs of the Air Force and the DoD and what our challenges might be in the future is central to improving one’s response to government opportunities. These training opportunities also help establish connections inside the gates which is pivotal to better responding to government opportunities. If there are connection opportunities that are presented via solicitations or other engagement avenues, I strongly encourage you to reach out to those individuals as they can give you clarification on the specifics of the Department’s needs, therefore your approach or solution can hit the target better.
The Air Force is improving its communication with external and internal communities, so take advantage of our different social media and other communication platforms as they become more available.
[00:11:12-00:12:12] Q: How do we reach you? What is a good contact info (phone/email) for the AFRL small business office during COVID?
A: You can reach the AFRL Small Business office at AFRL.SB.Questions@us.af.mil. In addition, the Air Force is rolling out its Air Force Tech Connect capability through which small businesses can pose questions, propose ideas and get insights into the relevancy of those ideas with some of our subject matter expertise feedback.
[00:12:14-00:13:16] Q: Can you help with our getting access to the AFWERX program?
A: Yes, the Air Force Research Laboratory Small Business Office is still in direct connection with AFWERX and the Office continues to support AFWERX with connecting to academia, industry and other government arms.
[00:13:17-00:14:17] Q: How overwhelmed is the U.S. Air Force SBIR/STTR team to responding to proposals?
A: They have certainly accelerated the number of awards and solicitations, and that does create a lot of demands on resources and staff, however they are able to keep up the pace. Nonetheless, for a more specific answer, that would be a question to ask the AFWERX Center of Excellence, which you can reach out to them via their website.
[00:15:04-00- 00:21:21]: APEX Overview by Ms. Mary Margaret Evans
Ms. Evans provides an overview on the APEX program and explains its mission, value, core competencies and services. She also elaborates on APEX’s six functional areas that include creativity & innovation, education &training, national engagement, data analytics, technology transition, organizational & workforce development, SBIR/STTR process navigation, and marketing & communications.
[00:21:28-00:22:00] Q: Can companies outside of the Dayton area participate in this program?
A: Absolutely. In fact, our charter is national, and we have worked hard to reach out across the country to identify and work with researchers and universities and small businesses. We encourage researchers, universities and small businesses interested in APEX services to connect with us.
[00:22:05-00:23:05] Q: What makes APEX unique from other SBIR/STTR support programs?
A: Like a lot of the other support programs, APEX also connects academia and small business and government. What differentiates us from other support programs is that our focus is nationwide and supports the entirety of the Air Force, not just a portion of it. It drives us to develop unique solutions like the MOOC. We asked ourselves: how do we provide education and training across the United States when we are one small program? The MOOC answered that question. That’s what makes us unique.
[00:23:06-00:24:10] Q: I am from the Netherlands and was invited to this event by email. Does the APEX program work with folks internationally?
A: You are welcome to register for the MOOC training which will help you understand how to work with the U.S. Air Force. We can also send you a link to the Air Force Tech Connect which will help you connect with researchers within the Air Force Research Laboratory. We already have a few folks outside of the U.S. using our Parallax Learning Hub.
[00:24:20-00:25:57] Q: How can APEX’s data analytics efforts benefit the small business community’s engagement with the Air Force Science and Technology community?
A: APEX’s data analytics does a nice job of mapping the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. and helps find small businesses and researchers with science and capabilities of interest to the U.S. Air Force. When we have a sense of what the end users (U.S. Air Force) need and when there are special programs coming out of AFWERX, we reach out to potential talent in academia and industry through our APEX data analytics and encourage them to participate in AFWERX and the SBIR/STTR programs. Our data analytics team helps with some of the team matchmaking efforts, too.
[00:26:15- 00:40:45] APEX Organizational and Workforce Development by Dr. Dave Rude
Dr. Rude covers the talent development ecosystem, organizational development and workforce development services provided by both APEX and Parallax as well as presents examples of ongoing projects within those disciplines.
[00:41:04-00:41:56] Q: Is your approach to organizational development customizable for specific client needs? For example, for improving the learning culture or providing curriculum on how to provide good consulting services to internal clients.
A: Absolutely. A central part of organizational development is consulting which is very client focused and client tailored, so we can’t take a one size fits all approach. In terms of working with clients, to really understand what their needs are, a needs assessment is the first step.
[00:42:00- 00:43:38] Q: If we utilize the APEX organizational development service, how might you evaluate that the training is being used?
A: Evaluation is central to any kind of learning, development, or training activity, yet we tend to think of evaluation on the backend. However, we really want to evaluate throughout the process. Once people are in the training event, we want to get immediate feedback on their reaction and their satisfaction to the learning. We’ll ask: what did they learn? What worked well? What were some opportunities that we could build upon to refine the training for the future? How was that learning applied on the job?
[00:43:40-00:45:15] Q: How do we determine which employees to send to the training(s) ;we select?
A: You must have a very egalitarian approach to providing training opportunities. There are programs that, for example, are very costly or require the employee to be away for a long period of time. Employees might pursue an academic degree or some other opportunity that will take them out of the office for weeks or months. Therefore, the organization would want to think about some sort of process for vetting applications in a very fair, equitable manner because usually, in case of high-cost programs, the company can only afford to send, maybe, one or two people a year when they have 15 applicants for that announced opportunity. So, you must have an objective and fair process for vetting the applicants and making those selections. That said, for the lion's share of training opportunities, such as the APEX MOOC, they're free, accessible and on demand 24/7/365. Therefore, anyone and everyone who has an interest should be given the opportunity to participate.
[00:45:34- 01:05:53] Parallax Learning Hub and APEX MOOC Curriculum by Dr. Dave Rude
Dr. Rude covers the Parallax Learning Hub capabilities, defines the MOOC, plays an introductory video on the SBIR/STTR training curriculum presented in the MOOC, and demonstrates how to log into the Parallax Learning Hub and register for courses.
[01:06:15-01:08:31] Q: Do you see the use of the Learning Hub creating a culture of learning in which an organization’s members can author content to be shared across the organization? Could this also be used to host AFRL Inspire?
A: The Parallax Learning Hub is within the Parallax company only. What we would be glad to do is work with our clients on understanding their needs and build curriculum that would be helpful to them and their organization. Nonetheless, within the Parallax Learning Hub, we are building a testing capability called “the sandbox”, in which we work with our clients on designing new training content for delivery in their own system. We're going to continue to build training products and solutions in Parallax Learning Hub so that those who enroll in the system will be able to access our ever-expanding course catalog. They will also be able to export learning packages for use within their organizations.
With reference to AFRL Inspire, through the partnership intermediary agreement between the Air Force Research Laboratory and APEX, we can help design events and then export them so that all Air Force Research Laboratory ;employees can engage in the Inspire event. That's something we look forward to discussing with you.
[01:08:35-01:10:09] Q: Will there be add-ons, for example, level four, etc.? Will this platform be expanded for any other trainings not specific to SBIR/STTR?
A: At this time, no to adding on a level four because someone getting through level three should be ready to be a contractor and achieve commercialization. However, to the second part of the question, yes, we will continue to expand our learning and training products in the Parallax Learning Hub. The first step was launching the APEX MOOC then we'll add levels two and three, and then we'll add in other things beyond and outside SBIR/STTR. Also, within SBIR/STTR we will use Parallax Learning Hub as a learning environment for those who are involved in current and upcoming solicitations that are issued three times a year.
[01:10:49-01:11:42] Q: How often will the APEX MOOC update its courses or add new courses?
A: All the content and the MOOC are “living”. Therefore, we might tweak a process based on lessons learned from a solicitation. We will make sure that the MOOC content is the latest, most current information available. We've already decided to be well connected to Mr. McJilton's office as well as AFWERX to make sure that our content remains fresh, current, and accurate.
[01:11:44-01:12:54] Q: What does the certification mean to the person who earns it?
A: The purpose of certification is to build confidence in the learner that they have learned enough to have a very sound foundational knowledge of the SBIR/STTR program. While the courses are meant to be introductory, we want people to have confidence that they have a basic understanding of its requirements and how to successfully work through the SBIR/STTR process. This prepares the learner for the upcoming levels two and three that will get them even more immersed in that program knowledge.
[01:12:55-01:14:07] Q: How do you decide which topics to make courses out of?
A: We have a committee of subject matter experts - those within the department of the Air Force who are well versed in SBIR/STTR as well as my colleague Dave Nestic and other external consultants - who have, for a long time, provided expert advice to companies on the program, so we’ve leveraged their knowledge to build out the MOOC curriculum. We are also joined at the hip with subject matter experts from all over the ecosystem to help us decide what topics and what learning is crucial to small business success and their success in collaborating with the Department of the Air Force and various commercialization programs. It's a collective journey in terms of building the curriculum and deciding on the topics to present within.
[01:14:30- 01:28:12] APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation Services by Mr. Dave Nestic
Mr. Nestic provides an overview of the APEX process navigation services and explains how the process navigation team works in tandem with the APEX data analytics, national outreach, and tech transition teams to maximize learning on behalf of the small business participants.
[01:29:18-01:30:10] Q: Is it possible to join a cohort and team in the middle of a solicitation round or must one begin the process from the round start date?
A: We wait until the pre-release hits the street and then we start putting the cohort together. You can go there now and sign up for when it becomes available. We don't close it out. Although, if the cohort gets too packed, you might miss some of the briefings because the briefings occur by invite only. However, we don't really turn anyone away, and there's always some level of support that you can achieve up to and including the day of submission.
[01:30:16- 01:31:02] Q: How do you select companies to join the matchmaking roster?
A: The companies are self-selected. You decide whether you want to be in matchmaking, and you follow the provided instructions and enter your information on the Team Matchmaking site yourself. The process of matchmaking is semi-automated. We don't curate it, and we will strip out identifying information if you put it in there. We only put together the introductions for people.
[01:31:05- 01:32:21]Q: Finding universities for SBIR/STTR proposals can be a challenge. How do you support finding universities?
A: If you're a company looking for a university partner, there's a couple things you can do. One is using the APEX team matchmaking function; I highly recommend that because we send emails during the pre-release and release phases. As people populate that database, the matchmaking will send emails notifying everybody in our contact list that matchmaking is now active, and we will provide the links to look at which entity needs to match with which. There are a lot of university academics who will put their information in indicating that they're looking for a company, and you might find a match that way.
The other way is if you're part of the cohort and you sign up with one of the APEX consultants. We speak among ourselves, and if there's somebody that needs a connection, all of us have networks within universities and we could start hunting and finding you an appropriate partner.
[01:32:25-01:35:00] Q: On what did you build your curriculum for the trainings you provide, for example, experience or are you getting insight from the Air Force or a combination of both?
A: It's a combination of both. Largely, the consulting groups are people who have put together proposals before, have submitted, have won awards, and have managed the projects in SBIR/STTR for years. Many of them are in business development with technology backgrounds, there are startup executives whom we have found going through the process. There are topics in the process that give people a lot of heartburn when they're going through the proposal phases. So, we cover those in group settings and in briefings and we invite everybody in the cohort and their team members to the briefings.
The first thing we do is we have our tech-transition person come in to speak, and our director of tech transition lays out the structure of the Air Force covering what a program executive office is, who the program executive offices are, what's MAJCOM (major commands), and how they relate to each other. We look at what the different technology interest areas are of the different CEOs, and we lay out the language of the Air Force and its structure.
Then we'll go into the commercialization parts of the proposal, including what the commercialization potential is and what the commercialization strategy is, and what the difference is between the two. We also cover where in the proposal you can insert additional information about commercialization that would strengthen the proposal.
We’ll then talk about how to put together an effective slide deck because the proposals all require slide decks. Following that, we'll go into the cost proposal and the budget section, and we'll dive into the cost volume and cover topics such as “how to fill out cost volume in a program.”
We will also put a dummy proposal together and submit it through the DSIP (Defense SBIR/STTR Innovation Portal) to test and identify any issues or hurdles with it. We then discuss solutions so nobody is in their last hours before submission finding out that they have errors in their proposals.
Those are the kinds of topics that we handle.
[01:35:02-01:35:50] Q: How do you see APEX’s buy in evolving with the Air Force?
A: I'm pretty sure that we've got Air Force buy in. We’re just explaining how the system works. We're not creating anything new that anybody must buy into. We're just trying to put into basic language and create an avenue and a sounding board to go back and forth and ask questions so that the process is more transparent and understandable.
[01:35:52- 01:37:23] Q: Our university partners are new to the STTR process. What parts of the APEX MOOC would you recommend they concentrate on to hit the ground running? White papers and intellectual property management rank high at first blush. We are a startup, so we plan to concentrate on the program management items like risk management. Other suggestions?
A: I'd start at the beginning and just go through all the courses in the MOOC. There's a lot of introductory information like what STTR is all about and why it exists. If you're looking at this program to help fund your startup then this program as well as the Department of Defense and Department of the Air Force is your customer. The more you know about it, the more you understand it, the better you're going to be. These are informative and easy to get through videos. They're anywhere from two minutes to five minutes in length. Some of them are longer, but it's all very useful information for competing in the program.
[01:37:26-01:38:44] Q: How are slide decks different from a write-up?
A: Slide decks can be more communicative as far as graphics go. You're looking to be a little bit more succinct in slide decks. The write ups usually accompany a lot of the content in the slide decks - some of the STTRs are complete slide decks and some of the SBIRs are five-page white Papers along with the slide deck. You could keep some or more of your technical information in the write-up and some or more of your graphical information in the slide deck.
That is an excellent question, and I highly recommend you join the cohort for additional information on that.
[01:38:45-01:39:54] Q: I understand that participation in the program does not guarantee application success, but what is the success rate of the companies that have already participated in the APEX program?
A: Overall, we're batting at about 50% and that varies by type of solicitation award. So, in the SBIR range, we're somewhere around 40%. In the STTR range, we're bumping up over 70-75%. For direct to Phase II, we're around 33%. So, when you start aggregating those, it's about 50% success rate. We're still going through about 50 or so proposals that are in review that haven't gotten their award notifications yet. There ;are a few others that have gotten award notifications that are still in contracting. So, we don't really count it as a win until it makes it all the way through contracting.
[01:39:55-01:40:54] Q: How can a nonprofit research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) organization assist with the Phase I and II ;awardee participants through APEX? Is there an applicable means of executing this through APEX?
A: I wouldn't say you're executing through APEX but you're getting involved through APEX. If you're a nonprofit and you qualify as a research institute then get into the team matchmaking, put the information in there that you offer, make sure we know about you so that if we run into companies that need your expertise we can create some introductions. I would highly recommend just getting involved and putting your information into the APEX team matchmaking form and reaching out.
[01:40:56-01:42:30] Q: What are typical barriers to address when a small business and research institution partner, for example, intellectual property agreements prior to partnering, etc.?
A: Most of the major universities and research institutes are familiar with STTR by now and know that there are agreements that must be in place. Everybody understands how it works, and they're usually used to handling that. Probably the biggest backup is the time it takes to go through the system and get all the approvals.
As you're working towards this and as you're approaching your research institute partner, you want to make sure that you're giving plenty of time for things to get through their system. They've got approvals that they have to go through, and you want to be cognizant of that. The first thing you need to do when you approach someone is to ask how long it takes to get an agreement through the process and who else at the university do you need to engage with in order to make sure that things get done in a timely fashion.
Those are probably the biggest things. Most of the universities are excited about and interested in STTRs and enter prepped and ready to partner.
For those interested in learning more about APEX services and specifically the MOOC, please register for our Parallax Learning Hub here. For all other questions, please reach our staff at LearningHub@parallaxresearch.org.