Nano-Bio Materials Consortium introduces new AFRL-Industry Co-Development Program

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Nano-Bio Materials Consortium is currently in contract negotiation with hopes of starting projects by June that use a new process of industry and AFRL personnel in co-developing smart medical technology innovations.

NBMC awarded contracts to 12 organizations from industry and academia Feb. 15, totaling $20.4 million, which leveraged $10.7 million of cost-share from award recipients. The Lab contributed additional funding to support the co-development efforts, which allows AFRL researchers to work alongside industry on NBMC Consortium projects. After matching to a project idea during pre-RFP discussions, these researchers were designated as NBMC Consortium project investigators and then collaborated with industry in proposal development for a particular project idea. After contract negotiations these investigators will continue active participation with industry in the development of Smart MedTech innovations to benefit the warfighter as well as the greater public.

“This is a new way for AFRL researchers to participate as project performers responsible for contributing to project milestones and deliverables, in addition to providing program management oversight that AFRL has employed for past NBMC projects,” said Dr. Jeremy Ward, past NBMC government lead and current participant in the AFRL Entrepreneurial Opportunity Program.

“This program should enable technical risk-reduction for industry by leveraging AFRL competencies and U.S. Air Force aeromedical and airmen performance mission connectedness and ultimately help speed the development of dual-use Smart MedTech,” added Matt Dalton, AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate program manager and NBMC Governing Council member.

The contract award resulted from a call for white papers earlier in 2020 and NBMC’s December 2020 release of a Request for Proposals, the creation of which was led by SEMI, a non-profit strategic partner of AFRL. With this cycle’s call and release, the NBMC had hoped for more insights and engagement from industry, said Dr. Gaurav Sharma, a NBMC Governing Council member.

“We need efficient mechanisms to leverage research being done outside of AFRL,” said Sharma, who is also Senior Technical Lead for Cognitive Neuroscience at AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing. “If someone is developing a groundbreaking technology that can be helpful for our Airmen, then let’s work with them so that we have an opportunity at an early stage to actively shape that research for Air Force-relevant use cases. Similarly, with this co-development initiative, external researchers will also get an opportunity to work alongside world-class researchers at AFRL and, through those interactions, get insights into the needs of the operational community.”

Sharma said that the co-development initiative in this solicitation was a big success and was reflected in the number of white papers and proposals the NBMC received in this cycle.

Compared to NBMC’s 2019 call for white papers and RFP release, NBMC received four times as many white papers from industry in 2020. Of those 53 white papers, 29 were selected by the NBMC Technical Advisory Committee based on reviews and scoring by both industry experts and 32 subject matter experts within AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate and 711th Human Performance Wing Human Systems Integration Directorate. The organizations that submitted these 29 white papers were asked to submit full proposals, 17 indicated interest in the AFRL-Industry Co-Development Program and then participated in discussions to match their project idea with an AFRL expert, or principal investigator, who would co-develop the project. From there, 12 co-development teams formed and submitted full proposals, and the NBMC Governing Council selected seven co-development teams for funding—75 percent of which are industry and the rest academia. In addition to the seven, the council also chose five non-co-development program proposals for contract award.

“We received a total of 167 comprehensive evaluations from 32 subject matter experts within AFRL”, said Lt. Suren Uswatta, current NBMC Government Lead. “We wouldn’t be able to successfully complete this funding round if it weren’t for the support from our AFRL evaluators, industry evaluators and critical strategic partnerships with SEMI as well as the leadership of Dr. Jeremy Ward, former NBMC Government Lead.”

The NBMC serves to connect with industry and academia for research and development into the practical use of nano-bio materials. Nano-bio materials, which are smaller than one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair, and other bio materials are used in wearable technologies, which are a large focus of the recent RFP, in addition to flexible and alternative power sources for wearables, open concepts for wearables or mobile human monitoring and/or diagnostic capabilities and ambulatory monitoring capabilities. Wearables can be used to monitor physiological and cognitive biomarkers of performance and stress. The addition of interest areas such as these to the recent RFP may have also contributed to the increase in white paper and proposal submissions, Sharma said, referencing recent buzz in the tech industry and greater public about areas such as neurotechnology. These technologies address the operational need to monitor, evaluate and mitigate stress experienced by people in high-pressure occupations, such as pilots and emergency, critical care and aeromedical evacuation personnel, thereby enhancing efficiency in warfighter performance.

“Often times there is a disconnect between tech push and customer pull. AFRL investigators are perfectly positioned to bridge that gap, and this co-development mechanism provides a nice platform to push forward collaborative projects that address our Airmen’s operational pulls,” concluded Sharma.

image of concept

The Nano-Bio Materials Consortium provides the means for industry—now with AFRL personnel working alongside—to develop smart medical technology innovations that benefit the Air Force mission and the greater world, such as this low-cost, wireless, vital sign monitor developed with flexible hybrid electronics and adapted for USAF En Route Care patient monitoring. (Photo courtesy of GE Research and the Nano-Bio Materials Consortium)