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Air Force’s emerging tech supply chain remains strong despite COVID-19

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Amidst talk of disrupted defense supply chains brought on by shuttered factories and global lockdowns, the Air Force says its industrial base for new technology is relatively undisturbed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Despite having to move a three-day “pitch bowl” event online when South by Southwest was canceled earlier this month, the department still awarded nearly $1 billion to startup tech companies in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards — seed-like funding from the government to help commercial companies focus on early-stage technology that could be used for defense purposes.

On top of this, other Air Force acquisition programs continue moving forward despite the disruption and economic uncertainty from the pandemic, said Will Roper, the Air Force’s head of acquisition, technology and logistics.

“I am amazed how little disruption entered our programs despite all the disruption around them,” Roper said in a statement Monday.

The Air Force’s impromptu virtual SXSW replacement event — called the Spark Collider — drew 5,000 people in 15 virtual rooms, moving keynotes, live pitches and meetings with industry online in a matter of hours. More than 550 innovative small businesses received investments over the daylong event.

The biggest awards, so-called “big bets,” gave 21 companies more than $550 million in four-year fixed-price contracts. Companies like Wickr, Anduril Industries, Privoro and others that focus on applying emerging technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning to defense challenges received big bet awards.

“The present crisis could easily create a tunnel vision towards near-term issues only, so we are also maintaining focus on game-changing capabilities our nation will need in future,” Roper said.

Roper also said that despite a delay in testing, the Air Force continues to develop technology for the futuristic network-of-networks Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system with its partners from the private sector. The program aims to connect “every sensor, every shooter” and requires major reconstructions of the military’s data architecture, which some small, innovative companies are involved in.

‘No disruptions or delays’

CEOs of some tech companies working with the Air Force say work continues on, or even ahead of, schedule. Despite operating the very type of small businesses most susceptible to the economic damage caused by the disruption of the coronavirus, the CEOs told FedScoop work with the Air Force is moving forward at a normal rate.

“The Air Force has been extremely helpful throughout this period of uncertainty and very responsive to our outreach,” Shaun Moore, CEO and founder of facial recognition startup Trueface that received an SBIR award, told FedScoop. “There have been no disruptions or delays in our work with the Air Force.”

Other companies are even seeing an uptick in work with the Air Force in recent weeks. For instance, Wickr, an end-to-end encrypted collaboration and chat platform, is speeding up its work with the Air Force and others.

“In fact, we are most focused on making sure we have the scale required to accommodate an 800% increase in users before the middle of April,” Joel Wallenstrom, CEO of Wickr, told FedScoop.

“Kudos to Dr. Roper and the team at AFWERX for seeing today’s need way before anyone else,” he added about the need for secure communications.

Moore added that for the Air Force to keep its emerging tech supply chain solid, it will need to continue working with small startups like his.

“If history repeats itself, all of the innovative companies have started as small businesses,” Moore said. “Our ability to rapidly innovate is what drives growth.”

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