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Feds seek startup innovation for small satellites

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Journal Staff Writer

The Air Force, Navy SEALs and NASA are challenging innovative startup companies to help them develop new small satellite technologies in a cash prize competition that will culminate Nov. 20 in Albuquerque.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base is partnering with the ABQid business accelerator on the second annual Hyperspace Challenge, which pairs small companies with government entities seeking creative input to solve complex problems.

The program builds direct connections between innovative startups and government contractors focused on critical issues, said Matt Fetrow, director of AFRL NM’s Tech Engagement Office.

“We look throughout government and the military to identify thorny problems without obvious solutions,” Fetrow said in a statement. “Hyperspace Challenge offers companies the opportunity to identify innovations that they may have applied initially to other domains, apply them to space-related challenges, and get assistance in building a business relationship with the federal government.”

Last year, the challenge focused on data analytics technology to manage reams of information collected by satellites. Of the 10 participating companies, six won government contracts after the program, Roxanne B. Aragon, ABQid Program Director for the Hyperspace Challenge, told the Journal.

“Last year’s companies had never worked with government before,” Aragon said. “But they walked away with connections that led to contracts.”

This year, program managers identified the following needs:

• AFRL wants better ways to aggregate large data from small satellites, and it wants assistance in building and deploying a connected network of devices on the moon.

• NASA wants help developing a new CubeSat communications system and a new power system for deep space missions, plus ways to improve microsatellite propulsion systems.

• The Naval Special Warfare Command wants to enable large data transfer from low-Earth-orbiting satellites that monitor remote environments.

The challenge is national in scope. Interested participants must sign up by Sept. 6 to discuss government needs and the potential technologies aspirants can offer.

Program managers will select 10 startups to participate, followed by three months for them to develop their ideas with input from government personnel connected to the problems being addressed, said AFRL New Mexico Economic Development Lead Gabe Mounce.

Participants will then gather in Albuquerque for a weeklong accelerator, culminating in demo-day pitches Nov. 20, with cash prices for three top winners of $20,000, $16,000 and $10,000.

This year, NMA Ventures in Albuquerque will join the program, working with participants on longer-term plans to build their companies in New Mexico, said NMA Managing Partner Dorian Rader.

“We want to incentivize them to locate here,” Rader said. “We could put up some equity investment and help them find space at the Sandia Science and Technology Park. The companies will likely be working with the AFRL and other entities at Kirtland, anyway, so why not help them locate here and fund them with some capital.”

The Hyperspace Challenge is one of a number of initiatives the AFRL is pursuing to build bridges into the business community. Last year, the AFRL signed a three-year, $750,000 contract with the ABQid accelerator to help construct collaborative relations with private companies working on new technologies.

The AFRL also launched a new Enterprize Challenge this summer, offering $30,000 in prize money to any three local businesses that develop creative, viable solutions for some of the Air Force’s technology needs. Air Force personnel appealed directly in late July to a standing room-only crowd of local businesspeople and innovators at the Innovate ABQ high-tech research and development zone Downtown, where they described a half dozen issues they need help resolving at Kirtland Air Force Base.

Those initiatives are part of a national effort by the Air Force and other defense-related agencies to more rapidly develop and acquire technologies that improve military capabilities by tapping into private sector ingenuity.

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