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Space Force Pitch Day Focuses on Pairing Companies with Innovative Technology to Meet USSF Mission Needs
By Lisa Sodders
/ Published August 19, 2021
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LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
Companies interested in partnering with the U.S. Space Force got additional assistance this year navigating the complex world of space acquisition from experts at the Space and Missile Systems Center.
Space Force Pitch Day is an event designed to encourage small and non-traditional businesses who may have never done business with the U.S. Department of Defense to pitch their new technology solutions. A Space Pitch Day was held in November 2019, followed by an International Space Pitch Day, held jointly with the United Kingdom, in November 2020.
Held Aug. 18 and 19, 2021 and livestreamed from Los Angeles, the Space Force Pitch Day event included awards to companies focused on innovation in early missile detection and warning; space domain awareness; space communications, space visualization, multi-domain command and control; data mining; operations within electronically contested environments; artificial intelligence; responsive launch systems; space logistics; and protection of critical space assets.
But before companies could make their pitch, they had to apply for and be awarded an SMC Small Businesses Innovative Research Phase I $50,000 contract.
After that, they were paired with a Customer Discovery Guide – SMC personnel who acted as liaisons between the USSF and the companies to help them through the process - and given training, networking opportunities and assistance, said Capt. Robert A. Busbee, ATLAS X-Business Innovation, Defense Ventures Fellow at SMC.
Forty-six companies from across the United States participated in Phase I of the program, which lasted several months.
“Companies have an opportunity to interact with those inside the Space Force through our customer discovery guides – it breaks the ice between these companies and U.S. Space Force personnel,” said Dansil Green, customer discovery lead for Space Force Pitch Day. “The process helps them identify challenges and ways their solutions might address those challenges.”
“This year we were able to offer an online curriculum to our companies that featured videos on different aspects, such as military terms, what the organization looks like, how to conduct a customer discovery interview, how does funding work, how they can levy the SBIR program to help them progress their technologies,” Green said.
“As long as you’re in our pipeline, it’s dedicated training for how to navigate the intricacies of what a Phase II proposal looks like,” Busbee said.
In order to apply for Phase II and actually make a pitch at Space Force Pitch Day, companies had to have a memorandum of understanding with customers/end users to demonstrate that there was support for their technology, so being able to describe their technology to the right audience in the right way was critical, Green said. Each company invited for a private pitch was eligible to be awarded a base contract of up to $1.7 million.
One common misconception the companies had was that no one from the U.S. government would get back to them, said Jennifer Outley, Program Integration Lead, EO/IR Weather System (SMC/DCIA) who worked with three companies interested in the space-based monitoring environment.
“Once I reached out to them and scheduled some time to talk to them about their technology and answer any questions they had, and after they did meet with some government officials, they said, ‘Can we submit more than one proposal? Now we’re realizing we have ideas that can help several organizations,’” Outley said.
Jung Yun, deputy System Engineering Integration and Test for the Enhanced Polar System Recapitalization Program at SMC, worked with companies specializing in artificial intelligence and satellite technologies. Two had experience working with the DoD, but one was brand-new to the process.
“The one company that was new to working with the military wanted to know how SBIR worked and were wondering if they could just contact various government programs,” Yun said. “They don’t have an in-depth look into the organization structures that a government acquisition person does, or know who makes the decisions.”
“There’s a stereotype that government procurement moves very slowly and is behind the times, but events like this show that the military is always willing to work with the leaders in technology to add those technologies,” Yun said.
Capt. Austin Sheeley, another customer discovery guide, worked with companies whose technology could potentially be applied to space domain awareness or ways to de-orbit space debris.
The focus of Space Force Pitch Day is typically on finding pre-existing technology that can be adapted for military use: for example, a breathing tube that could be used in a medical emergency on the battlefield also could have applications in civilian medicine, Sheeley said.
“Sometimes the public’s idea of military acquisition is the ‘defense industrial complex’ – very large companies that are hired to do massive undertakings of billion dollar programs and by the time you field it, it’ll be obsolete,” Sheeley said. “What we’re focused on is small, agile, quickly acquired products that are either off-the-shelf or almost readily available to push into a pre-existing program, so when you field an item, it’s more effective.”
But the guides also can steer companies with emerging technology to other agencies in the DoD, Sheeley said.
“You don’t have to ‘win’ at Space Force Pitch Day,” Sheeley said. “If we see merit in your ideas, if your technology isn’t mature, we can pass the companies along to the research labs and future planning labs.”
One advantage of working with the DoD is the opportunity to get non-diluted funding, Green noted; the DoD isn’t taking any equity in the company, like a venture capitalist would, and the funding can help companies develop their products further.
“This a way to introduce new technological capabilities into the U.S. Space Force ecosystem, and introduce us to them so they understand our mission sets and our mission needs,” Green said.
Getting a USSF contract may be kind of financial support that helps these small businesses grow, and that translates into more jobs and benefits the economy as a whole, Outley noted.
“It helps expand competition in procurement,” Outley said. “It introduces the U.S. Space Force to a smaller company, a non-traditional company, that has the technology that maybe the government was looking for when it’s looking for ways to do it better, smarter, and more affordable.”
“You’re validating a product market fit with the government, and you’re doing it with a dedicated government representative who is getting you through the common stumbling blocks,” Busbee said. “It can be confusing – you don’t know who the potential end user is, don’t know which organization is right for you, but with Space Force Pitch Day, you have a connection point: someone who can say, ‘Let’s see where you fit within the U.S. Space Force.’”