Captain Steve Lauver is the Director of Technology Accelerators for AFWERX, a program that seeks to foster innovation within the US Air Force. Lauver oversees AFWERX’s accelerator, which links up active duty Air Force, Reserve Air Force, contracted personnel, and startups to solve problems.
Five Elements For a Successful Startup Initiative
In order for an innovation cell to exist within any organization, there need to be a couple of stakeholders aligned. We actually look at this. We call it the five-node process or the five-node approach.
- The first and most important node is what we think of as the entrepreneur. That’s the person who has the idea. … They’re the ones that are passionate about solving a problem and who understand the problem. …
- The second one—and this is really key to any innovation program—is leadership buy-in or top cover. If you’re doing something differently or against the grain, you will hit barriers. Having leadership [have] your back is so important for greasing the skids and removing those barriers when they pop up. …
- The next one is, in my opinion, are the unsung heroes in many cases. That’s the contract and legal support. … It’s the lawyers who are saying, “Is this legal, ethical, or not?” We need to have them aligned from the beginning of any new project all the way through to the end because, if we don’t, they’re going to become one of those barriers that we have to figure out a way around or to work with.
- A funding partner. Whenever we take on a project, we want to follow an actual real problem. … Having an organization that says, “I have a real problem. I’ve got funding to solve it, if you can find there’s a solution.” It’s super-important.
- The last one is the actual solution. … Either a tech solution or…a policy solution.
Define the Problem, Not the Solutions
We had a tendency to—and this is [common] across the world, not just in the government—see a problem and then to say what we think the solution is, instead of just saying the problem.[H]ere’s an example. … If we want to see over a hill for whatever military purpose, what we have a tendency to do is to say, “Look, I need you guys to create me a satellite that’s going to be in geo orbit. It’s going to have these specifications.” Very specific, and, in reality, we just wanted to see over the hill. We don’t care if they come back with a hot air balloon or a carrier pigeon with a camera on it.
If they can give us the most affordable, most effective solution, whatever that looks like, that’s great. [We are] shifting towards a culture of telling companies our problems, and less so what we think the solutions look like [to] solve that problem. …
Advice for Other Government Innovators
The first one would be, “Come talk to us,” for sure. Talk to anyone that’s done it before, because we make so many mistakes. We make tons of mistakes. We’re fortunate to have a culture from leadership down that says, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Just fix them fast, and move forward…”
The second…is just get good people, and put them in a room, and don’t over-control them. There’s an “it factor” when you’re talking to people in any organization, but especially in the Department of Defense or in any particular service…when you talk to somebody, you say, “Wow, this person is inspired. They get it. They want to make a difference.”
… Get a small group [of those kind of people] together and then just start to talk about it. It’s like primordial soup. You just get the right people together and something good will happen. … Just get good people, and put them in a room, and don’t over-control them.
Vita, based in Denver and Seattle, is pioneering new, innovative hardware solutions for daily safety challenges in aerospace, construction and other dangerous industries. Vita’s first product, the Load Stability System, was created to solve the deadly swinging of helicopter hoisting and sling-load systems. They are alumni of the 2019 Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars.
Vita CEO Caleb Carr was joined by Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which hosts the annual business plan competition, Col. Randall “Laz” Gordon from AFWERX, Capt. Steven Lauver from AFWERX, Ryan Helbach from Air Force Research Lab, and Warren Katz, managing director of the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars.
After a wildly successful inaugural 2018 program, Techstars, the U.S. Air Force, MD5, and BAE Systems FAST Labs, are delighted to announce the 2019 class of the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars.
The program was originally brought to market in partnership with the Air Force, who at the time was focused on increasing its engagement with early stage innovative startups and altering their approach to how they interface with and buy from startup organizations—without turning them into full-fledged defense contractors. This initial program was so successful that additional sponsors Air Education and Training Command (AETC), MD5, and BAE Systems FAST Labs have joined AFWERX and Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to support the 2019 program.
All 10 cutting-edge companies from the program’s first year have gone on to win U.S. Department of Defense contracts, commercial proof-of-concept projects, or private investment, and are in the process of fielding state-of-the-art products to warfighters. In addition, nine of these companies received funding from the Air Force’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program.
Funded and supported by the U.S. Federal Government, SBIR is one of the largest sources of early-stage capital in the United States, and is intended to help small businesses conduct R&D—and opens another funding option to founders looking to maintain equity. A few updates to AFWERX’s specific SBIR program for 2019 makes it even more attractive to both entrepreneurs and VCs: companies who have already received SBIR contracts who go on to raise a traditional funding round can get that funding matched by SBIR, up to $1.5 million. AFWERX is also executing a much quicker turnaround time for grant applications, thanks to a redesigned application process.
Nearly half of the 2019 class of companies already have open SBIR contracts, awarded before the start of the program—making them eligible for that generous matching option.
We are proud to announce the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars class of 2019:
On the heels of a widely acclaimed 2018 inaugural program, Techstars and the U.S. Air Force are announcing the expansion of the autonomous technology accelerator to include additional technology areas, the addition of a corporate sponsor, and the enhancement of the complementary version of the SBIR program aimed at funding accelerator companies.
The Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator with the U.S. Air Force, held in Boston Q1 2018, was an experiment by the Air Force in establishing closer ties to the most innovative early startup companies with commercially viable products that the Air Force found compelling. AFWERX, the sponsoring program office, determined that the pace of innovation in the private sector is accelerating away from the military. To maintain dominance, the Air Force needs to engage startups that otherwise avoid DoD bureaucracy, by adapting Air Force business processes to match the commercial world, not the other way around. The first program, closely monitored by senior Air Force leadership, accelerated 10 cutting-edge companies who have gone on to win DoD contracts, commercial proof-of-concept projects, private investment, and are on the verge of fielding state-of-the-art products to warfighters.
“We were encouraged by the disruptive innovations produced by the first class,” said Captain Steve Lauver, Director of Technology Accelerators at AFWERX. “As we aggressively seek to improve our sales cycles, processes, and the speed at which we transition promising technology to the warfighter, it is invaluable to have an experienced and respected partner, like Techstars, to help us build trust and interact seamlessly with the startup ecosystem.”
Seeing the potential to deliver innovations to the warfighter “at the speed of relevancy”, several additional Air Force offices have signed up to support the program. With the additions of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC), and MD5 to the Air Force Research Lab Small Business Office (AFRL/SB), AFRL Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office (AFRL/SPDE), and Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center (AFNWC), AFWERX and Techstars concluded that it would be beneficial to broaden the Boston program into the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars. The Boston program will again be run by Warren Katz, Managing Director, and Conrad Hollomon, Program Director.
Techstars is also delighted to announce that the most prolific corporate contributor to the first program, BAE Systems, who provided mentorship and paid pilot projects for several program participants, has joined the program as a formal sponsor. As such, BAE Systems will fully participate in the recruiting and selection process, and have close interactions with all the participant companies during program. More on BAE Systems’ FAST LabsTM research and development can be found here.
“BAE Systems is committed to lending our technical expertise, market knowledge and resources to startups in support of the local innovation ecosystems,” said Dr. Jerry M. Wohletz, Vice President and General Manager of FAST Labs at BAE Systems. “Teaming up with Techstars supports our goal of leveraging and developing disruptive technologies to deliver discriminating solutions to our customers at the speed of innovation.”
To support the seamless purchase of prototypes and products produced by companies going through the accelerator, AFRL has been experimenting with a new variant of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. Air Force solicitations 18.2 and 18.3 offered special topics that utilized massively simplified proposal formats, accelerated award cycles, and a Phase II structure that resembles commercial product purchase orders as opposed to defense-contractor style labor contracts. In conjunction with the 2019 accelerator program, the Air Force intends to expand the number of topics and funding amounts for this new commercially-oriented SBIR.
The Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars will focus on commercially viable startups with dual-purpose technologies– a private sector application as well as government application, including companies with autonomous technology that might enable or enhance the ability to detect, track, identify, characterize, attribute or mitigate unmanned systems, to include, but not limited to, sensor technology, high-performance computational hardware and software, computer vision and digital image processing, AI, multi-modal sensor integration, secure communications, trusted identification, power systems, high-performance materials, integration systems, and human machine interface. In addition, we seek companies with innovative immersive-training technologies, to include AR/VR and adult learning methods such as gamification, social delivery and self-directed learning, and technologies to support data-enabled recruiting, training and education.
Stay tuned for updates on Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars meet ups, webinars, and news on the application process.
Interested in this program? Applications are open.
Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Through the Techstars Worldwide Entrepreneur Network, founders and their teams connect with other entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, alumni, investors, community leaders, and corporate partners who will help their companies grow. Techstars accelerator portfolio includes more than 1580 companies with a market cap of $16.1B.
Established in 2017 by the SECAF and reporting to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, AFWERX is a catalyst for agile Air Force engagement across industry, academia, and non-traditional contributors to create transformative opportunities and foster an Air Force culture of innovation. The core mission of AFWERX is to improve Air Force capabilities by connecting innovators, simplifying technology transfer, and accelerating results.
BAE Systems provides some of the world’s most advanced, technology-led defense, aerospace, and security solutions. The company employs a skilled workforce of 83,200 people in more than 30 countries. Working with customers and local partners, BAE Systems develops, engineers, manufactures, and supports products and systems to deliver military capability, protect national security and people, and keep critical information and infrastructure secure.
Techstars is excited to announce our second defense-focused accelerator and our second accelerator in Boston – Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator with the U.S. Air Force. I will be the managing director for this program. Applications open today, and the program will begin in January 2018 in Boston.
Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Techstars has long had a presence in Boston – starting with Techstars Boston Mentorship-Driven Accelerator and Techstars Startup Weekend events in 2009. Since that time more than 1,300 entrepreneurs have participated in Techstars Startup Weekend Boston and we have accelerated more than 100 companies through the Techstars Boston Mentorship-Driven Accelerator.
For decades, the U.S. military has been a key driver of technology and innovation, with the Pentagon serving as the primary funder for early growth of Silicon Valley. Super Glue, Post-It Notes, GPS, cellular technology, lithium ion batteries, even the internet, all originated with the military. In fact, the U.S. military is responsible for almost all of the technology in the iPhone. We wouldn’t have Siri without the Department of Defense. In addition, the Department of Defense budget is $600 billion annually – almost 10 times larger than all U.S. venture capital combined ($69 billion).
Most exciting, however, is that we are working with some forward-thinking entrepreneurs inside the military who have realized that the pace of innovation in the private sector is accelerating away from the military. To maintain a leadership position, the U.S. military must start doing business with startups that otherwise avoid bureaucracy, by adapting their business processes to match the commercial world, not the other way around.
The Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator with the U. S. Air Force will focus on commercially viable startups with dual-purpose technologies– a private sector application as well as government application, including companies with autonomous technology that might enable or enhance the ability to detect, track, identify, characterize, attribute or mitigate drone systems, to include, but not limited to, sensor technology, high-performance computational hardware and software, computer vision and digital image processing, AI, multi-modal sensor integration, secure communications, trusted identification, power systems, high-performance materials, integration systems, and human machine interface.
Go to our page to sign up for our email list to get updates on Techstars Autonomous Technology Accelerator with the U.S. Air Force meetups, webinars, and news on the application process.
Interested in this program? Applications are open.