The Air Force is launching its first Pitch Day to attract tech startups

By will roper

If you’re like me, you geek out on new technology. It’s certainly changing our lives at a dizzying pace. Many mind-blowing ideas are being birthed by U.S. startup companies, but the Pentagon largely misses out on them. For a big bureaucracy like ours, awarding a contract in months is actually pretty quick. But for startups living hand-to-mouth, that’s an eternity to wait.

As a result, we’re not competing for ideas in the accelerating tech ecosystem, opting for the passenger’s seat instead. The Pentagon has to do business at the speed of ideas: inspiring and accelerating startup creativity to meet national security challenges. The smaller the company, the faster we need to move. Instead, too often startups confront hurdles more akin to that classic amusement park sign: “You must be this tall to ride this ride.”

I am excited to announce that the Air Force is finally tearing down those obstacles: Welcome to Pitch Day. On March 6-7 in New York, we’ll put $40 million on the table as step one in a new initiative that will transform how the Air Force works with startups and universities and research centers. And we’re introducing our new bureaucracy-busting contract: a convenient one-page, one-day, credit-card-based transaction. If a company has a PayPal account, they can do business with the Air Force in $150,000 increments. Last month, we awarded 100 contracts in 40 hours as part of a trial run of Pitch Day.

You may think the Pentagon has tried this before–and indeed we have, holding a few startup events and awarding a few contracts–but nothing at this speed or scale. Our limitation wasn’t due to lack of desire; it was wading through the “molasses moat” to get money from the government into the hands of industry. Thousands of regulations make this a slow trudge.

Ironically, speed is the top priority for Air Force programs. We set a Century Challenge to trim 100 years from our programs. After seven months, we’re already at 70. This represents an exciting gearshift for the military, who need systems fielded faster. But to marshal the creativity of America’s startups in the service of the Air Force, we need to start faster.

Here’s how Pitch Day works. We’re posting our challenges online across platforms like LinkedIn this January. Companies have 30 days to submit a short proposal and pitch deck. We review and invite promising candidates to pitch their ideas in New York, also inviting commercial investors and our defense primary contractors to join. If we’re impressed by a concept and company, we sign, swipe, and say, “Congratulations! You’re partnered with the United States Air Force!”

The success of this effort ultimately translates into a permanent shift in how the Air Force works with startups. We need to energize startups to see that tackling our challenges can be a means to accelerate their own growth and vitality, even if their business plans are ultimately commercial. If orbiting Air Force challenges isn’t easy, commercially rewarding, and hopefully pretty cool, we risk estrangement from one of our nation’s greatest and growing strengths: its vibrant high-tech commercial ecosystem. A better and more secure future for the country won’t just happen within the five walls of the Pentagon.

But with over $650 million in our small business innovation budget, we can accomplish huge things outside those walls if we get Pitch Days right. So to all high-growth-potential companies, help us remove the “you must be this tall” sign from in front of the Air Force. We’re ready to be the preferred innovation partner for companies of all sizes.

Will Roper is in charge of acquisitions and technology for the U.S. Air Force

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