By APEX SBIR/STTR Process Navigation Team
Over the past few years, the Department of the Air Force (DAF), which includes the U.S. Air Force and the newly created U.S. Space Force, has changed the game in its Small Business Innovation Research and Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program. The program has become faster and nimbler and more venture capital-like. The DAF Open Topic approach is more application and solution focused. In it, the DAF asks,
“How does your product or service solve a DAF problem?”
“Who is a likely DAF customer?”
“Who else in the commercial or military market can you sell your technology to?”
“Who else might fund the idea?”
In the DAF Open Topic, anything that solves a DAF problem can be considered. Using this approach, the DAF can take advantage of entrepreneurial creativity and innovative solutions to create a more potent and capable fighting force and protect Airmen and their families. Although the DAF offers more traditional, specific topics where the proposer suggests a solution to a specific question, this post highlights DAF Phase I Open Topics.
When mentoring small business owners and entrepreneurs through many DAF solicitations, here are the biggest challenges that I’ve seen them often struggle with when proposing for DAF Open Topics:
1. Connecting with DAF potential customers and applications.
2. Communicating in a compelling way in the prescribed medium.
3. Understanding and communicating commercialization potential.
4. Connecting with university partners for STTR.
5. “Dotting the Is and crossing the Ts.”
1. Connecting with DAF potential customers and applications
To answer the first two questions, a successful DAF Phase I Open Topic proposal describes how a company’s technology solves a U.S. Air Force problem and for whom. To do that, you must investigate U.S. Air Force needs and applications and preferably connect with someone in the agency who has and understands the problem. Interestingly, if you are awarded a Phase I, the bulk of that work will be in customer discovery, to identify and develop a DAF interest. Despite that, many selected Phase I Open Topic proposals have identified and connected with a DAF contact.
It is NEVER too early to begin this. This process takes time, and the entrepreneurs who put in the time and legwork to identify and connect with DAF users are typically the ones who are rewarded. This is best done well before a solicitation is pre-released, which means NOW!
You can begin to understand DAF needs and applications by putting in some heavy-duty internet search activity to understand the problem your solution addresses and who in the DAF has that problem. Focus on articles that mention your technology area, the needs you address, and the U.S. Air Force. You might get lucky and not only discover a great U.S. Air Force use but also an airman who is quoted and who might be a contact.
Work your network! People you know who have served in the military are likely to know people in the armed services who are involved in your solution area. If they know someone in the DAF- awesome! If they know someone in the U.S. Army, that soldier may lead you to a colleague in the U.S. Air Force (they probably attend the same technical conferences). Also, a U.S. Army application may have a DAF analog. At the very least, your network contact might know the DAF location where a particular technology is required.
A great resource to get started is Air Force Tech Connect (https://airforcetechconnect.org). This site asks you a few questions and tries to connect you with someone, typically within the Air Force Research Laboratory, with whom you can discuss your technology and DAF applications.
You don’t have to be exhaustive in terms of numbers of connections. You just need to have enough contacts and information to make the case that you can solve a problem for the DAF. In fact, if you are selected for a Phase I award, the bulk of your Phase I effort will be customer discovery, where you flesh out the DAF application and add to the people who are interested.
2. Communicating in a compelling way in the prescribed medium
The primary medium for DAF Open Topics has been a 25-slide deck. It sounds like when a venture capitalist says, “just send me a slide deck,” doesn’t it? A submitted slide deck, however, is NOT what you would use to present to an audience. This is because with a slide deck, you don’t get to speak. It needs to stand alone. A submitted slide deck allows you to use somewhat smaller fonts and detailed annotated graphics. It is the vehicle for you to answer the questions posed by the DAF at the beginning of this post.
The DAF structure typically has some required slides but affords the proposer a great deal of flexibility. Key criteria are:
Follow the instructions to the letter, otherwise you could be disqualified.
Answer the areas that the DAF cares most about:
Do the above in a clear and compelling way.
To the third point, you need to recognize that the reviewers are reading A LOT of proposals. Your slide deck needs to be clear, concise, and compelling.
As part of the Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment’s, or APEX, free-of-charge DAF SBIR/STTR Process Navigation services, you can get help with making your proposal slide deck meet all three criteria by participating in group sessions and utilizing APEX’s 1-1 consulting. To register for these services, join an APEX cohort any time prior to a DAF solicitation at Process Navigation Services | APEX.
Download our "Process Navigation Consulting Services for DAF 22.1A SBIR/STTR solicitation flyer" to learn how to sign up for our cohorts!
3. Understanding and communicating commercialization potential
We’ve talked about identifying DAF needs and potential users. Technical merit is inherent in the SBIR/STTR program. Commercialization potential, what the DAF dubs “dual use”, is the all-important “third leg of the stool” and what questions 3 and 4 refer to.
The DAF cares about your ability to deliver your product/technology to several users, including other services like the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, as well as to identified segments in the broad commercial marketplace. Why? The interest of other customers, whether military or commercial, provides excellent validation of your technology and indication of its longevity. Also, selling to a broader audience ensures that the technology will be updated over time, allowing the DAF to stay on that technology curve with you.
The DAF also cares about external funding that has been invested in your company and plan to attract capital to help develop your technology/solution. This is especially true of venture capital but includes other funding vehicles as well. Outside funding validates your technology, solution, and team.
Who can help? Another key aspect to APEX’s free-of-charge Process Navigation cohorts is group and 1-1 training on what the DAF is looking for and how to best communicate in terms of commercialization opportunities, plans, and opportunities.
4. Connecting with university partners for STTR
STTR proposals require that a university or research institute (RI) partner perform at least 30% of the work and receive at least 30% of the STTR contract award. There are several reasons to propose an STTR, including a university/RI technology can be an enabler, you might require resources that are available from these partners, it’s a better fit for early-stage technologies, and others. Possibly the most compelling, however, is that STTR proposals appear to be selected at a higher rate than SBIR proposals.
To submit an STTR, you need to develop a relationship with your selected university/RI partner. This includes your technical partners as well as the university’s Tech Transfer Office.
You need to determine the RI’s role in your Phase I, which can be somewhat challenging in the Open Topic. This is because the bulk of work in an Open Topic Phase I is customer discovery, an area that is not necessarily the specialty of many university/RI people and the funding is relatively small. Solutions to this, that successful STTR proposers have used, include the partner performing a feasibility study or testing that helps prove feasibility and having marketing/business faculty and students help with customer discovery and needs identification.
STTRs require specific paperwork and agreements that are not required in SBIRs. Doing these during a solicitation can be, at best, an unnecessary distraction and, at worst, might not leave enough time to get things done. The time a given university or research institute requires to get these completed can vary. You should have detailed discussions prior to a solicitation so that the “skids are greased” to get the agreements done to enable your proposal.
APEX’s free-of-charge matchmaking services can help entrepreneurs and small businesses find university/RI partners and vice-versa.
5. “Dotting the ‘I’s and crossing the ‘T’s”
Just before I wrote this blog post, I was viewing an AFWERX (DAF entity that manages the DAF SBIR/STTR Program) webinar. During the presentation, the primary speaker said, “make sure you are and stay eligible. Help us help you!” He was referring, of course, to all the details that can slow you down or even disqualify you. All the things above are extremely important, but they can become irrelevant if you don’t pay attention to the details.
First, get the registrations required for Department of Defense (DOD) proposals completed ASAP. Do NOT wait until the solicitation! These include SAM registration, CAGE code, DUNS #, DSIP registration, login.gov, and others. This is not difficult, and lack of the right credentials can and will disqualify you. Note that in SAM registration, you need to check the box for “all awards,” not “only grants.” This is because DOD awards are contracts, not grants. The DOD offers services from organizations called Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (PTACs) to help businesses work with the government. Help with your registrations for SBIR/STTR are part of their services, and they are generally excellent. Find a PTAC in your area here: https://www.aptac-us.org/find-a-ptac/
Read the solicitation! It is the guidebook to your SBIR/STTR proposal opportunity, and the final arbiter of the rules. The first time you go through the process, this is an arduous but necessary task. Later, you will know what sections are the ones that tend to change and have the most specific information. Each proposal type has its own solicitation document and instructions. The SBIR Open Topic (designated by numbers-i.e., x22.2 is SBIR) is different than the STTR (designated by letter- x22.A is STTR). This your responsibility! Avoid the tendency of many entrepreneurs to depend on others like APEX to ensure that the rules are being followed.
Understand the required details like the cost volume, but don’t get freaked out by them. The DOD has adjusted its requirements so that you don’t need to have government accounting to be selected for and deliver a Phase I SBIR/STTR. You do, however, need to have a basic understanding of overhead and direct and indirect costs. The Small Business Administration offers several excellent tutorials on cost volumes at www.SBIR.gov. Also, as part of APEX’s Process Navigation cohorts, we provide group and 1-1 support to help.
I hope that you found this post helpful you as you consider using the DAF SBIR/STTR Program to support your technology development for your entrepreneurial idea and dream.
Here are some other resources that you’ll find useful:
AFWERX (www.afwerx.af.mil)- AFWERX is the DAF entity that manages the DAF SBIR/STTR program. The program offers a tremendous number of excellent webinars and other resources to inform you of the entire program. You should be on the AFWERX mailing list to keep aware of these opportunities and for news on the program.
DSIP (www.dodsbirsttr.mil)- This is the site where you will get solicitation details, schedules, and upload your proposal. It’s a must during solicitations.
SBIR.gov (www.sbir.gov)– This is the general SBA website for the entire SBIR/STTR program for all agencies from DOE to NSF to DOD and many others. It’s well organized, with lots of helpful resources.
APEX (www.apex-innovates.org)- This is my organization. APEX is a Department of the Air Force partnership intermediary agreement (PIA), which is how we provide our services free-of-charge, including cohorts, matchmaking, information sessions, calendar event, and many others. It’s useful to join the APEX mailing list on the home page to be kept aware of opportunities during and in-between solicitations.