Last week, the Army Applications Laboratory hosted Innovation Days for the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) at Capital Factory in Austin. This was the second such event for RCCTO; the first was held in Mclean, VA in September 2019.
I had the privilege of being around the event last week and sitting through some of the presentations. I say “being around” instead of “attending” the Innovation Days because the event itself was closed, and wasn’t really an “event” at all. Innovation Days was a series of 38 concept pitches to three assembled groups of Army program managers, technologists from the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Centers, and Soldiers representing the would-be end-users of the products pitched. Companies were invited to pitch at specific times over the course of two days, and each pitch was closed to outsiders except at the invitation of the invited companies.
RCCTO received over 700 white papers and invited 38 of those concept submissions to Austin to pitch. Those companies – 34 in all, as four companies were invited to pitch on two topics – ranged from defense industry giants like Boeing and L3Harris to two-person startups like Boston’s Cleo Robotics. No contracts were awarded on the spot, but the assembled group grilled each presenter on program, tech, and user fit, conducted a brief deliberation, and the gave the company a very vague “yes, we’d like to work with you” or “no, not at this time.” If that seems extraordinarily vague to you, it’s because it is, but it’s worth noting that of the 42 topics pitched at the September innovation days, 9 of those topics resulted in prototyping contracts before the end of the year.
The pitches were well done! I was originally skeptical about the closed pitches, because the entire point (or at least a major point) of pitching is to make the public aware, create energy, and drive more solutions to your next Innovation Challenge. In order to make the pitches public, and incorporate a theatrical element, they need to be shorter, less interactive, and less technical. In this case I was wrong. The way RCCTO and AAL conducted these pitches was spot on, in my opinion. Program specialists were present to ask cost and schedule questions. Tech SMEs were able to ask questions about performance and integration into existing systems and platforms. And Soldiers were able to ask Soldier questions, like “what happens when I stuff this thing into my rucksack and throw it onto a truck. Will it break?”
The mix of traditional DoD primes and what DoD innovation parlance has dubbed “non-traditionals” was interesting. Not very often – or ever – do you see companies with $10B+ in annual revenue competing side-by-side with fledgling startups. Further, the startups had the edge! The contrast was stark: the Crystal City Crew wearing dark suits, and the startups were just pitching their product. The suits seemed perfectly comfortable in the environment until they got up to pitch, and the startups – their reaction was exactly the opposite.
There was a missed opportunity to bring the entire group together for something collaborative. The Austin defense innovation ecosystem is inherently inclusive and collaborative, and folks were genuinely disappointed to be excluded from this event. We like to see what our friends are doing, learn from each other, partner, grow, and find new opportunities! Though there was some self-interested disappointment or FOMO from those not invited to pitch, there was also a genuine desire for our ecosystem to learn about RCCTO, the types of solutions they’re looking for, and what solutions resonated with the teams. And, anytime you can mash up a group like that with the ecosystem that already exists in Austin, it seems wasteful not to take the opportunity!
I know both AAL and RCCTO are reviewing this latest iteration of Innovation Days and are already planning for future ones. Despite a minor (and debatable) complaint from some corners, it was still a worthwhile endeavor for RCCTO and a good chance for AAL to continue to exercise their outreach team.