AFRL announces record-breaking FY23 small business awards during Small Business Summit
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – Significant funding growth in fiscal year 2023 Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, contract awards to the small business sector was announced by Brian McJilton, director of the AFRL Small Business office during the lab’s first enterprise-wide Small Business Summit, held Nov. 28-30, 2023, at Dayton Tech Town, located in downtown Dayton.
The event brought together small business professionals from across AFRL, including its geographically separated locations, the AFMC Small Business office, AFRL and AFMC contracting offices, DOD Office of Small Business Programs, U.S. Small Business Administration, and small businesses to share information about their experiences with a goal to attract even more small business opportunities.
McJilton shared some inspiring news with summit attendees, saying, “AFRL has been going gangbusters with our small business numbers.”
In opening remarks, McJilton stated that the AFRL Small Business Office set a record for FY23 with total small business awards reaching $2.12 billion.
“Our Small, Disadvantaged Businesses received $546 million, or 11.72% of our total amount awarded to small businesses. Our [Service-Disabled] Veteran-Owned Small Businesses set a record for AFRL at $123 million and our Women-Owned Small Businesses were awarded at $329 million and HUBZone’s were $34 million,” he said.
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration website, the HUBZone program fuels small business growth in historically underutilized business zones with a goal of awarding at least 3% of federal contract dollars to HUBZone-certified companies each year.
“This summit gives us a chance to talk about what is working well, to hear some success stories from across the enterprise, and also to hear some of the challenges we’re seeing with regard to how we are engaging, connecting and working internally with our processes in support of small business opportunities,” McJilton said. “Also, what we are hearing from our small business colleagues outside the fence. We want to ensure we have the small business perspective included in our acquisition strategy. We’re pleased some of them are joining us for this discussion.”
Several of the AFRL small business professionals and contracting representatives shared what motivates them in their efforts to support small business growth.
“I love working with small businesses, how it connects us [AFRL] with our greater country,” said Kim Yoder, a senior acquisition adviser for AFRL’s Small Business office and AFRL’s Strategic Partnering Directorate. “I love engaging with them, helping them succeed.”
Likewise, Pak Dewhurst, a procurement center representative from the U.S. Small Business Administration, expressed his passion for supporting small businesses.
“The enthusiasm from small businesses is what gets me going in the morning,” Dewhurst said. “They are the secret weapon in this competition.”
Another small business professional, Mike Graniero, from AFRL’s Information Directorate at Rome, New York, also expressed excitement over the accomplishments.
“When you have a true success story, it’s like watching your kids open presents on Christmas Day,” Graniero said. “They’re euphoric about it. It’s good to see the fruits of our efforts showing results.”
McJilton shared that he hails from a small business background of about nine years before he joined government service. Doing business with the government as a small business was more difficult back then, he said.
“I worked right outside the base on Colonel Glenn Highway for two different companies based out of D.C.,” McJilton said. “We were also a startup, and out of those nine years, the number of opportunities we had on base were zero. Here we were, just hundreds of feet from the base, and we couldn’t get inside for business. When this opportunity came open [AFRL Small Business office director] he thought it would be great to see how he could better help small businesses.”
McJilton said the AFRL Small Business and contracting teams have been working hard to engage with small businesses within the external science and technology ecosystem.
“We want to understand what their challenges are in working with us as an acquisition group,” McJilton said. “What are those things that make it difficult for them to work with us or even want to work with us? How do we continue to entice and encourage small businesses to come work with the U.S. government and bring their abilities that help meet the demands of the Department of the Air Force? This is about good communication, engagement and relationship building.”
For some, the motivation is based simply on being a public servant.
“I eat, sleep and breathe public service,” said Shanel Fultz, deputy director of AFRL’s Small Business office. With a background in public administration, Fultz said she is passionate about supporting small businesses and their mission.
One of the small businesses present at the summit evolved from the AFRL Entrepreneur Opportunity Program, or EOP.
Raider Technologies is a low-cost radar firm that provides research, development, test and evaluation services to support advanced sensing applications for DOD and commercial industry.Dr. Aaron Jones is President of Raider Technologies and was formerly a technical adviser in the Multi-Sensing Knowledge Branch of AFRL’s Sensors Directorate. He spent 12 months participating in AFRL’s EOP program, which he describes as “the most unique technology transition and tech startup opportunity in the country for defense and dual-use companies and one of the top benefits for AFRL scientists and engineers.”
According to Jones, for Raider, the EOP provided the time and opportunity to perform several key startup tasks prior to launch. Tasks such as business plan development, assessment of the appetite for technology from multiple potential customers and identification of near-term non-dilutive funding opportunities for continued development of technology were key at the start. Receiving high quality continual feedback and business advice from former EOP graduates, current small business experts and founder/owner/operators on high-dimensional considerations of a dual-use tech startup were also important.
“From start to finish and ultimately the separation from AFRL, [the] EOP lets you run unshackled to support tech transition for AFRL, the warfighter and commercial industry, all while standing on the [research and development] shoulders of AFRL,” said Jones. “[the] EOP was the catalyst for Raider and its immediate success following separation.
AFRL’s Small Business Office has been and will continue to be in Raider’s critical path for growth and connection to the Air Force, according to Jones.
“Necessarily, they were a partner through EOP Phase I, but post-graduation (Phase II), they have continued to support through network effects, providing notice of current opportunities and perhaps most valuably, an advocate for small business within AFRL.”
The record-breaking numbers announced by McJilton show that AFRL’s leadership team is laser-focused on the needs of the nation’s warfighters and recognizes the importance of supporting small business economic development in doing so.
AFRL senior leadership small business focus
Timothy Sakulich, AFRL executive director and member of the Senior Executive Service, has held his current position for about two and a half years and has been with AFRL in other senior leadership capacities as a civilian since 2010, with three years on active duty prior to that with AFRL.
Sakulich said the mission and purpose of the AFRL Small Business Office are to be an engine that “we’re going to depend on now and into the future to provide an advantage to our warfighters. It empowers this very group to help us navigate the future potential of bringing in and embracing this larger ecosystem even to the next level. The authenticity of what got said here this morning is the real power, it’s not just the brain trust and the intellectual capital behind it, it’s the motivation and drive combined with that.”
Every major business that AFRL currently deals with on prime contracts started out as a small business, Sakulich said.
“There is a future game-changing, major industrial base competitor out there today that looks like a small business,” he said. “We are part of the ability to find that and connect the dots to where that can make a difference.”
Sakulich told summit attendees that AFRL is back in a normal state where it finds itself immersed in a strategic competition of ideas, and its job is to make sure that the organization is providing the tools that the nation’s leadership needs to have when called upon.
“We hope that in doing that, it will deter direct confrontation,” Sakulich said. “We must play the long game. If you miss out on the long game, at some point, you’re going to atrophy the very pipeline of advantage that keeps us a strong nation. That’s why this work here is so foundationally important. We are incubating the health of the industrial base, incubating the options and decision space for future technology solutions by what we’re doing here. Some of this will deliver results tomorrow. Some of these won’t play out maybe in our career.”
Three-quarters of the businesses AFRL works with in the research and development sector of the DOD are small businesses, Sakulich said.
“That’s a big number,” he added. “That tells you how important this is. It’s our job to make sure we don’t lose the edge on making us an attractive partner for small businesses.”
Sakulich mentioned that AFRL’s Small Business professionals need to think like the business side does, but also as a scientist does, while highlighting topics such as Generative Artificial Intelligence, making data findable, ensuring tight alignment with national security priorities and strong communication and outreach. Asking questions, engaging, listening and being data- driven are crucial, Sakulich said.
“Where is the data?” Sakulich emphasized. “How are we using the data to better inform our decisions to create an advantage?”
Maj. Gen. Scott A. Cain, AFRL commander, has established three AFRL priorities. One is “Drive the Fight”. Science and technology have enormous leverage to shape the strategic environment, Sakulich told the audience.
“We drive the fight by choosing the technologies that we’re going to put emphasis on, the investments we make by making the opportunity space visible to small businesses so they can apply their innovation into that ecosystem to great effect,” Sakulich said. “That’s how we drive the fight.”
The second priority is “One Lab One Fight”.
“We as a laboratory enterprise must think about the whole set of domains out there and become bilingual to air and space,” Sakulich added.
The third priority is “our people are our competitive advantage”.
“We’re really a human capital organization that does technology for a living,” Sakulich said.
New startups don’t have to go it alone
APEX Accelerators help new startup companies in various ways with a focus on building strong, sustainable and resilient U.S. supply chains by assisting a wide range of businesses that pursue and perform under contracts with the DOD, other federal agencies, state and local governments and with government prime contractors.
“APEX Accelerators are the first stop for small businesses to help them become procurement ready to work with the Air Force,” said Billy Grill, Southwest Region Associate Director from the Ohio APEX Accelerators. “To help them through the process of getting SBA credentialed to work with the government, our role is kind of at the tip of the spear. We need to get new small businesses procurement ready to do business with the government civilian space and the DOD space.”
Charles Green, chief executive officer, and Scott Robidoux, chief operating officer of Assured Information Security, or AIS, from Rome, New York started their business in 2001 and were working on their first government contract in 2002.
“We’ve had great success working with AFRL,” Green said. “We enjoy a good relationship with the leadership and with Mike Graniero [AFRL Small Business professional at AFRL’s Information Directorate]. It’s been a rewarding relationship for us.”
Starting with four people, AIS has grown to approximately 220 employees today.
“We’ve gone from doing pure basic research all the way up through technology readiness level nine,” Robidoux said. “We have capabilities that are fielded operationally, including Secure View and STARGate, which are shining examples of what our relationship with AFRL has enabled because of the lab’s relationships and connections with other government agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, and Army Intelligence and Security Command, or INSCOM.”
Mile 2 is a Dayton small business and is a human-machine teaming company that brings engineering, design and computer science engineering skills to solve problems with holistic and resilient human-machine teaming solutions. Jeff Graley is the President of Mile 2 and a graduate of the AFRLEOP.
“I left AFRL to start Mile 2 in 2015, so the journey started in late 2014,” Graley said. “I was working in the 711th Human Performance Wing’s Airman Systems Directorate [now Airman Effectiveness Directorate] as a program manager when they were looking for volunteers to explore how we could improve tech transition and commercialization through entrepreneurship. I worked with the Small Business Office, personnel, and JAG [Legal Office], while exploring several startup communities in the U.S. to help pathfind the EOP program by documenting what was needed inside the fence and from the community to enable an EOP candidate to successfully transition from government employee to entrepreneur.
“I’ve found the Small Business Office to be a group focused on continuing to improve small business’ ability to succeed in working with AFRL,” Graley added. “They genuinely seek feedback and work hard to address the challenges small businesses face.”
Battle Sight Technologies, founded in 2017 out of the Dayton Entrepreneurs Center, is a Service-Disabled, Veteran-Owned defense products company focused on the warfighter and various mission sets, including survival, personnel recovery, isolated persons, combat search and rescue, combat resupply and close quarters battle mission set.
Nick Ripplinger is president of Battle Sight Technologies and served as a U.S. Army Soldier where his love for warfighter innovation began.
“After the military, I spent time in larger defense contracting where I learned the ins and outs of working with the Air Force and DOD,” Ripplinger said. “I learned about AFRL and its Small Business Office through the Entrepreneur’s Center in the early days of Battle Sight.
“Battle Sight’s experience working with AFRL’s Small Business Office has been great,” he said. “We continue to work with their Small Business Innovated Research program, which has led to the commercialization of three products currently fielded with the warfighter and a pipeline of over 20 additional products. In addition, AFRL’s Small Business Office has opened doors through connections inside and outside of the organization for us.”
Familiarity with the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, and Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR, programs is growing. These are highly competitive programs that encourage domestic small businesses to engage in federal research and research and development with the potential for commercialization. These programs are a component of small business activities, but they only constitute 30% of all AFRL small business awards.
Creating relationships, getting a foot in the door
McJilton pointed out that success often begins through relationship-building within the small business ecosystem.
“For instance, getting new startups aligned with the appropriate APEX Accelerators who can help them with their credentialing with the Small Business Administration and introducing them to our [AFRL] Partnership Intermediaries who are responsible for the bridge of tech transfer to tech transition,” McJilton said.
An opportunity for Ohio-based companies and universities that are interested in working with the government is the Ohio Federal Research Network, which provides an opportunity to work side by side in a teamed approach between a small business and a university that is funded through the State of Ohio. The work they do is in direct alignment with an area of interest by either AFRL, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, or NASIC, the NASA-Glenn Research Center, or the Navy Medical Research Unit Dayton.
“The idea is that as this technology is fleshed out through a two-year award by the state of Ohio, this is growing expertise in the state of Ohio, it’s causing greater expansion and growth of the small business ecosystem and broadening and deepening of the industry base in Ohio,” McJilton said.
“This enables them to establish a relationship with AFRL,” he added. “That’s the big thing. If you’re looking for an opportunity to get your foot in the door, this is an opportunity to establish a relationship, get yourself known so that when opportunities arrive inside AFRL or as you finish your project you’re doing through OFRN, it’s potentially a gateway to an acquisition opportunity inside AFRL.”
The AFRL Regional Research Hub Network is a pilot initiative assembling a new science and technology ecosystem with universities, large and small businesses, other government agencies and venture capitalists in which partners help the lab research high-risk case studies. There are currently two AFRL Regional Hubs: Midwest at Purdue University and Mid-Atlantic at Cornell University.
“The Hub networks are another opportunity that offers the intangible benefits of relationship building with larger businesses, which could open up subcontracting opportunities,” McJilton said. “It also gives you an opportunity to be engaged with AFRL scientists and engineers who are working within these network ecosystems.”
To connect with the AFRL Small Business Office and learn more about collaborating with AFRL, please visit AFRL Small Business Hub.
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit www.afresearchlab.com.