Air Force starts new initiative to harness the power of startup companies

The new program blueSHIFT will help the U.S. Air Force focus on awarding contracts to creative, small businesses, Secretary Heather Wilson says.

Heather Wilson, secretary, U.S. Air Force

Each year, the U.S. Air Force aims toward meeting a goal of issuing about a fifth of its contracts to small businesses, but it’s finding that many of the firms it works with just aren’t that small.

That leaves the Air Force missing out on a lot of cool ideas it could use, said service secretary Heather Wilson.

That’s why the service is trying something new: a national pitch day for small business. It’s part of a larger initiative called blueSHIFT, aimed at reaching out to smaller companies. The shark tank-like format will let the Air Force quickly assess ideas from small business and find the innovations that fit the service’s needs the most.

“It will be March 6 and 7 and it will be the first pitch day with the United States Air Force,” Wilson said last week during the Defense One Summit in Washington. “We will be announcing, on LinkedIn and websites everywhere, some of our toughest problems. They will be in software, intelligence, special operations, and then we will have an open category for good ideas.”

The Air Force will be investing $40 million in contracts over the two days.

They are looking for five page papers from small businesses. If the service likes the idea, the company will be invited to pitch day.

Organizations within the Air Force volunteering for help from small business include Program Executive Office Digital, Air Force Business Enterprise Systems and Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks.

“If we like your idea, you can walk out that day with a one page contract and a swipe of a government credit card for your first down payment as a contractor for the United States Air Force,” Wilson said. “We want to get small innovative companies able to do work with the United States Air Force, and we’re willing to change the way we do business in order to do it.”


The idea is just one of many ways all of the services and the Defense Department as a whole are reaching out to traditionally non-defense businesses for new ideas and faster procurement in order to stay ahead of near-peer competitors like China and Russia.

“For our big bureaucracy, awarding a contract in months is a flash. For startups living hand-to-mouth, it’s an eternity,” wrote Will Roper, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition technology and logistics in a Nov. 13 memo to acquisition personnel and first published by the Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page. “The Air Force must do business at the speed of ideas: inspiring and accelerating startup creativity toward national security challenges. The smaller the company, the faster we must get them on contract.”

Roper stated the “short game” of the challenge is to energize the Air Force small business portfolio with unprecedented speed. The long game “is more strategic: inspiring young companies to solve Air Force problems as a means to grow and thrive, even if their business plans are ultimately commercial,” the memo stated.

The Air Force did a trial run on this last month when it awarded 104 contracts in 40 hours using government purchase cards.

Wilson said the Air Force is looking for good ideas in almost everything. In fact, one example of tough problem small businesses solved for the service involved skydiving dogs.

“Most special operators now operate with dogs and very often they jump in,” Wilson said, referring to special operators parachuting to a mission. “You can’t jump in from 30,000 feet with a dog, because there’s no oxygen mask for a dog.”

The Air Force looked to small business for a prototype.

“Now we have small, medium and large oxygen masks for dogs,” Wilson said.

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