In April 2019, the Department of the Air Force launched its Science and Technology 2030 Strategy that lays a path forward adopting and delivering warfighting capabilities at the speed of relevance and necessity. As a result, the Department of the Air Force invested in programs to assist small businesses, innovators, entrepreneurs, academics and anyone with a useful idea with applying for Department of the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards. The Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment, or APEX, is one of those programs.
APEX’s mission is to expand the American research enterprise in a way that moves defense technology from discovery to reality. The program achieves this by connecting qualified technology entrepreneurs and academic innovators with the Department of the Air Force SBIR/STTR program. In some cases, in technology areas of significant interest, for instance, APEX will make direct connections to appropriate Department of the Air Force partners. The APEX goal is to eliminate barriers in accelerating the transition of science and technology solutions into transformational operational capabilities. APEX is a Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA) between the Department of the Air Force.
APEX National Engagement
APEX National Engagement targets individuals who have the technology background and capability to apply for an SBIR/STTR award but might not be familiar with the program and the opportunities for technology implementation in the Department of the Air Force. Therefore, the APEX National Engagement team organizes various national foundational and regional webinars that cover Department of the Air Force-specific details for each solicitation; organizes meet & greets for regional organizations, including universities, small business concerns (SBCs), economic development organizations (EDOs), etc.; and introduces them to the Department of the Air Force innovation ecosystem.
APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation
APEX Process Navigation provides pre-award and post-award navigation services to academics and entrepreneurs nationwide. The goal is to increase the number of successful proposal submissions. These services include:
Assistance with navigating the proposal process
One-to-many briefings on proposal pain points
Access to expert APEX consultants to help entrepreneurs, academics and innovators apply for Department of the Air Force SBIR/STTR awards
Team matchmaking to create necessary or stronger partnerships
APEX National Engagement and SBIR/STTR Process Navigation services are free of charge.
Pre-award stage consulting
During the pre-award stage, the APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation team puts together a cohort of organizations that are interested in pursuing a Department of the Air Force SBIR/STTR award. The cohorts are given a set block of briefings to provide key information in their proposals, thus making them more responsive to the solicitation. The briefings explain the Department of the Air Force structure, Major Commands (MAJCOMS), program executive offices (PEOs), etc., as well as provide expert advice on known “pain-points” regarding commercialization plans, creating slide decks, reviewing the cost volume section and navigating the Defense SBIR/STTR Innovation Portal (DSIP).
The initial APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation briefing gives participants an idea of how to incorporate the correct Department of the Air Force terminology into their writing and hit the mark on how to prepare a winning proposal. Participants also get a better understanding of where their technology might fit within the science and technology ecosystem. Simultaneously, the APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation team encourages businesses to read and understand Department of the Air Force SBIR/STTR and AFWERX focus area documents and engage with technical points of contact.
In addition to providing an understanding of the Department of the Air Force environment, the APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation team provides briefings on commercialization potential and strategy and how to pitch with effective slide decks, all of which are important to making each participant proposal impressive and responsive to the direct solicitation. Close to when the proposals are due for submission, APEX consultants assist participants with constructing a cost volume that is reasonable. At this stage, participants receive assistance with learning to navigate the DSIP, to show them where they have to upload certain information and work through potential issues, such as not being able to upload proposals or getting incomplete errors due to blank fields. The APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation team provides this assistance while ensuring that the proposals are entirely the entrepreneur’s work, as the APEX team only provides impressions, insights and feedback to help the participant strategize for a win.
Once companies get to the “selectable/funded” status within the portal, which means the participant has been notified of their proposal being awarded a Phase I, it is critical that they continue communication with key entities to avoid information gaps during that waiting period. APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation provides constant support during this phase of the process to ensure optimum follow-up communication with contracting requests.
Post-award stage consulting
After qualifying participants receive their contracts, the APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation team puts together a cohort of selected/funded companies for the post-award support period; these companies were part of the pre-award support cohort for that round. During this period, APEX, again, assigns a one-on-one consultant to the participant and provides other helpful briefings, including, but not limited to, customer discovery, value proposition and product-market fit to build a better Phase II application.
In addition, the APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation team begins looking for projects that are important to the Department of the Air Force and are in critical technology areas. These projects are then introduced to the APEX Tech Transition capability which is connected to a network of Department of the Air Force project executive officers (PEOs), technical executive officers (TEOs) and prime contractors.
During the process, cohorts/participants are supported with one-on-one consulting by assigned APEX experts. These consultants offer extra assistance outside of briefings. APEX consultants have been involved with the SBIR/STTR program in one way or another for years, and many of them have submitted to or won awards in the new AFWERX process. APEX consultants bring a collective 100 plus years of experience with SBIR/STTR, but what makes their expertise well rounded is that many are simultaneously involved in growing their own businesses via SBIR/STTR awards. Therefore, each APEX consultant is very empathetic to and possesses a thorough understanding of the goals and challenges faced by companies in the SBIR/STTR process and the nuances of the larger defense industry.
APEX team matchmaking
APEX has produced a semi-automated and anonymous process for matching customers into teams based on their science and technology capabilities, skills and needs. The process designates whether the organization that is seeking a partner is a company, or a university and the kind of organization sought for a partnership. The process requires a technology description of what the advertising organization brings to the table and what the advertising organization seeks in a partner, as well as the technical competencies of the desired partner. Once APEX provides a matchmade connection, all parties are left to discuss if their interests, objectives and capabilities are aligned.
APEX Tech Transition (Tech Pull)
Once a customer with a viable technology for Department of the Air Force application enters the APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation service pipeline, they may get directed to the APEX Tech Transition team that enables connections across acquisition communities with the Department of the Air Force. APEX Tech Transition changes the current paradigm of where a single need is matched to a single technology based upon who-knows-who to matchmaking of many technology developers with many technology consumers. Technology can be paired with multiple needs. This enables technology developers with a better understanding of Department of the Air Force needs and technology consumers with a better understanding of relevant technology in development.
From helping companies familiarize with the SBIR/STTR environment, terminologies and processes to providing multi-level intensive and comprehensive assistance, APEX provides a continuum of support from pre-award Phase I to Phase III that enhances the chances of a company to win awards and make meaningful contributions to the Department of the Air Force.