One of the novel (and therefore least understood) organizations formed under the recently activated Army Futures Command is the Army Applications Lab (AAL). For this inaugural series of posts in the TDIF blog, I thought it fitting to discuss this startup-within-a-startup, representing a unique intersection of Army and Austin
“AAL is the Army’s proponent for disruptive technology,” or so says Adam “Jay” Harrison, Director of AAL and Futures Command’s Chief Innovation Officer. Different from the Army’s research labs, whose mandate is to create things that don’t exist, AAL’s raison d’etre is to find things that do exist and adapt or apply them to military problems in a unique way. Jay Harrison discussed AAL, and what he expects they’ll be doing in 2018, during the most recent Austin iteration of Startup Grind.
AAL is located in Austin at the Capital Factory, so AAL’s team is rubbing elbows and sharing complimentary coffee with every variety of startup and the entrepreneurs running them. Mere proximity is not sufficient to integrate the swarm of innovative ideas into Army systems and formations, so AAL plans to socialize military problems with technology innovators in two ways. First, AAL plans to launch a Reddit-style discussion forum where the Army can post specific problems relating to the six modernization priorities to essentially crowdsource refinement and curation of problem statements. A more tangible means of communication with potential solvers will be through hackathons organized around a specific technology or capability, such as A-Hack-Of-The-Drones which kicked off Austin Startup Week 2018.
AAL expects to do business with startups and established companies that don’t normally do business with the DoD using Other Transactions (OT). OTs are good for small and early-stage companies because they shorten the sales cycle and allow companies to negotiate with the Army on commercial terms (that means bypassing draconian competition rules, getting paid faster, and keeping your IP).
Harrison acknowledged that to find the right companies, the defense innovation ecosystem will need to be very well networked around target technologies and industries. (Recognition of this fact, and the lack of an existing network of companies focused on DefTech, is why we established TDIF.)
AAL will focus on four business efforts in FY19, each focused on a different level of technology maturation.
1. The Catalyst program will be a R&D effort focused on technologies at TRL4 and earlier, and is expected to combine the efforts of the Army’s Research, Development, and Engineering centers with University research labs and private companies around specific technologies: AI/ML, automation, quantum computing, and additive manufacturing.
2. The Capability Accelerator will focus on more proven technologies and adapt them to wicked military problems in novel ways. The initial focus will be to explore ways to develop situational awareness in dense underground environments and large cities.
3. AAL will manage a capital fund which will make (non-dilutive) seed and pre-seed investments using a portfolio approach, focusing on priority technologies.
4. AAL’s most ambitious project will be a manufacturing accelerator. Harrison indicated that AFC wanted to construct, in Austin, an advanced manufacturing facility that will determine whether products that add interesting capabilities can be manufactured at sufficient speed and scale, and to military durability specifications, so that they can actually be fielded.
Harrison’s agenda for AAL is ambitious, but we are already seeing pieces of it in action (such as the new AI Task Force at Carnegie Mellon). 2019 should be an exciting year for defense innovation!