Praveen Yadav, SciArt Software CTO, shares his experience with the AFWERX SBIR program. SciArt, selected for the inaugural Techstars Space accelerator, empowers engineers to create lighter, stronger designs.
Why did SciArt apply for AFWERX?
AFWERX is a great initiative from the US Air Force (USAF) to collaborate with start-ups and small businesses. Their objective is to identify innovative solutions and make them accessible to the US Air Force to support their mission, vision and objectives. Fundamentally, they want to leverage the speed and scale of innovation that happens in a start-up environment and provide resources to accelerate the development of the solution to meet the goals of the US Air Force and larger DoD community. It was a great opportunity for SciArt to explore potential customers in defense agencies by way of AFWERX.
Tell us highlights about the application process. What three key items should I do for Phase 1 competitive submission?
AFWERX website provides a lot of templates illustrating everything a start-up requires to submit a successful application. Their evaluation criteria is very straightforward. They evaluate an application for:
1) Business risk: Market opportunity (TAM/TOM/SOM) for non-government use to set the start-up for long term success.
2) Technology risk: Clear technical path to product with appropriate skill set on team personnel.
3) Phase III transition opportunity: Clear DoD and non-DoD government customers or stakeholders that benefit from the technology/product once phase 1 and 2 are awarded.
If your focus is on ‘customer discovery,’ how do you communicate a budget plan for Phase 1 funding?
AFWERX phase 1 budget plan was very simple for us. The funds were to be used to reach out to various USAF customers to get a signed MoU for phase 2 development. That is the only objective of phase 1. No technical development is required or expected. Our approach was to allocate 2 personnel on the customer discovery working half time with travel budget included. This typically covers the entire budget.
What was your Phase 1 discovery like? What was the general program and timeline experience?
Our experience was a little compressed and hectic. Due to the holiday season at the beginning of the program and accelerated timeline for phase 2 submission towards the end. We only had 8 weeks to identify a customer with signed MoU to submit a phase 2 application. While there were plenty of start-ups out there who knew their customers before the start of the program, we had to struggle to identify opportunity. Rather than going through the public directories, we decided to participate in AFWERX challenge workshops that aligned with our vision. The workshop provided a wealth of connections some of which could potentially be customers or stakeholders.
What are highlights from your experience? Is this worth it even if you don’t get Phase 2 funding?
We were able to secure an MoU to submit a phase 2. I’d say that was pretty cool. Even though we weren’t able to secure phase 2 funding the program was very illuminating of the Air Force and larger DoD acquisition process.
What is one piece of advice companies can do to get the most from the AFWERX program?
Follow the instructions as provided by AFWERX. They have so many support documents to lower barriers with the USAF community. Use those templates/documents to start communication. They know their personnel, and provide great advice on what type of communication typically gets a response.
What is one big ‘don’t’ from your experience?
Don’t leave the MoU discussion with a potential USAF customer or stakeholder towards the end. Lead with it. It should be part of the main agenda. Otherwise, the communication tends to go around in circles and the customer may think you are wasting their time.
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