Today on the show, Strategy + Action = Effectively Doing Business with the Air Force
In this episode, I talk with Dr. Kate Gilpin and Chris Mather. They're with a program called APEX (Academic Partnership Engagement Experiment). APEX is administered by Parallax Advanced Research and is all about pairing entrepreneurs and universities with the Air Force.
This is an exciting topic for me because I've had my eyes opened recently to all the new opportunities that are out there for entrepreneurs to work with the Armed Forces faster and more efficiently than ever before. A lot of the branches are really looking for that next new, innovative solution to a variety of problems.
And they're improving how they discover and work with those entrepreneurs, as well as the university sector.
APEX is not only working with entrepreneurs and universities, but pairing them together, and creating those alliances, through the networks that they have to then go and work with the Air Force.
I hope you'll check out this episode and maybe it will spark an idea of how your company could benefit from this program.
During this interview, any mention of US Department of Defense Information does not imply or constitute parallax advanced research is Apex program speaking on behalf of the Department of Defense.
Today, the show strategy plus action equals working effectively with the Air Force.
Success in business and life is a constant back and forth of charting your course and taking the consistent steps every day to move forward. Both, are critical, My guests on the show range from hardworking entrepreneurs starting from scratch to visionary leaders of cutting edge companies looking to scale, help you understand the strategies that are working for them, and the actions you can take to model their success. For me, show like this is all about joining forces with my guests to dig deep, and create something new for you. Whether that's a small insight to get you unstuck or a path of massive growth through customized marketing, integrated sales initiatives.
Welcome to Episode 34 of Strategy and Action. I'm your host, Jason Croft. And today on the show, I've got Dr. Kate Gilpin and Chris Mather. They're with a program called APEX. APEX is all about pairing entrepreneurs and universities with the Air Force. This is an exciting topic for me, because I've had my eyes open recently to all the new opportunities that are out there for entrepreneurs to work with the Armed Forces really faster and more efficiently than ever before. A lot of the branches are really looking for that next new, innovative solution to a variety of problems. And they realize that the private sector is an amazing source for a lot of those solutions. So they're not only out there looking, but they're changing the ways that they look and the ways that they're open to working with those entrepreneurs, as well as the university sector, the world of academia, you know, there's there's a lot of resources there and what Apex does to not only working with entrepreneurs, and working with universities, but pairing them together, and creating those alliances, through the networks that they have to then go and work with with the Air Force. So it's an amazing topic. So many insights from them on this. Let's jump in.
Welcome everybody. Dr. Kate Gilpin and Chris Mather are here with us. Welcome.
Thank you so much for having us.
Yes, indeed. This is this is a fun topic. This is honestly like, this is the stuff that I get excited about. If if anybody watching is, you know, checked out, David Shaw's episode with a stroppy. And he really opened my eyes to working with, you know, with the government, overall, different military branches, all of that, just the, the new possibilities, I think we all have preconceived notions, if we haven't done it gone through that process of just, oh, that's not something I want to deal with. And I found out, you know, through David, wow, there's, there's a new world out there. And when it comes to this, and that's why I was excited to talk to you both about your program, Apex, I want to definitely get a high, high level overview of what that is right now. And then we'll kind of dig into the background. And, you know, you're really helping folks essentially, do business with the Air Force, in particular. And I want to dig in today and dive into why that's a good idea. You know, people, especially with people who have businesses who probably aren't considering that, I think is exciting to just open up those new doors of possibilities. So Kate, why don't you let us know what apex is all about?
Sure. Apex stands for academic partnership engagement experiment. And we are a partnership intermediary for the Department of the Air Force. That means that we work in between the Department of the Air Force, which includes the United States Air Force, and the United States Space Force, and the industry partners that are trying to do business with the Department of Air Force. So we sit in between those two organizations, trying to help both out. And one of the most common ways we help the small businesses is through the SBIR STTR program, which I'm sure we'll get into a little bit more as the as the conversation goes on. But we offer a variety of services that are funded by the Department of the Air Force to help small businesses as they try to do business with the Air Force.
So this is this is exciting. I think the first thing that's popping into my head with apex is what's what's the business model here. How, how is Apex making money and being able to provide all these resources for entrepreneurs
Well apex is a program underneath parallax and parallax advanced research is a nonprofit research institute. Apex is the partnership intermediary. And we are funded by the Department of the Air Force. The Sodor, the Department of Air Force, has funded Apex specifically to help them as part of their 2030 strategy, their their science and technology 2030 strategy. And our success is really the Small Business and the university entrepreneur success. So we work very hard to make sure that they are successful, because if they're successful, then the apex program is successful. And it's a win win all around.
So that means that for the universities and entrepreneurs, it's no cost to them to go through this process, correct?
That is correct. Yes. For the University and small business entrepreneurs that are utilizing APEC services, it's a no cost to them, because we are funded by the Department of the Air Force.
Nice. What is what does that mean? Like? How are you getting in front of those businesses and grabbing that attention right now.
We do a lot of outreach on the national scale. So we outreach to universities, we also outreach to small businesses, really, one of the highlights of the Department of the Air Force diversity program, is the fact that they have tried to reduce the barriers to entry. So we have a lot of opportunity to outreach to the small businesses and university partners, who have never done business with government before. And we do this through all of the typical means you would think it essentially cold calling. But of course, we do it via email, but we just will send out an email that we targeted to principal investigator, principal investigators at universities, and small businesses that are doing something related to the Air Force. Of course, there always has to be an identified need, or an identified solution for Department of Air Force problem, quote, unquote, problem. But there are many, many different ways that small businesses can provide those solutions. So there any small business that's providing a technology that could in any way be useful, the Department of the Air Force, we can we can outreach to them and help them along their way through through the Supercentre journey.
Chris, what is your specific role there with apex? Well,
as Kate mentioned that we all we get in involved in the middle and help. I've heard that I focus on the entrepreneurial side. So I do some work when we're not in the middle of a solicitation, which is when the Air Force says, Hey, we're open to proposals. I do some work with universities and outreach at those times. But usually what I'm spending my time on, like we're in right now, a solicitation that's due in February, with helping entrepreneurs get ready for that, for whatever that communication vehicle is, in some cases, it's a white paper and other cases, and most of the open topics, it's often just a slide deck. So sounds very VC like so I get involved, that's been my specialty in my career, and how it's helping people raise that venture capital, and how they communicate. And it's very, very similar, but you have to communicate for the Air Force in very specific ways. And we provide services to help those entrepreneurs do that and to help them navigate through the
process. What's what's the, I would say sort of the the percentage split of
doing the more requests where, you know, when the airforce says, Hey, we need this. And you're going out trying to match and then sort of going out to entrepreneurs in general, to say, you know, what you're doing right now would be a great fit for the Air Force. If you thought about that. What's sort of that? Is it kind of a 5050?
I would say that, that probably people are interested in general, but they don't understand what's called the open topic. And the open topic is Kate mentioned very, very, it's just that it's an open tight, it's open to what anything that can solve a problem for the Air Force. So we have a lot of people who say, do I fit, so we have them come into our product program, and we kind of have to evaluate, because there are cases where somebody really isn't a fit, when I talk to them and say I just don't see how you could you could sell this as a solution to the Air Force. So say, a software as a, as a service solution. That's, that's all completely towards consumers. There's no way the Air Force can use it that would not fit, often, though they do fit. So I would say that, that it's a it's a broad mix. And it's really hard to even say because you have people who've done SBIR STTR for years, and all of a sudden they're dealing with a different approach. And someone struggled with that because they want to keep doing it the old way. And the old way doesn't work in this program. Then you have people who are aware of it but don't really weren't sure where to go. And then we have people I know with an option Just last week where she has a solution that that came to me through another channel, and I said, you know, we have the Air Force program that you really could be a fit for. And when we talked about it, she's extremely interested now in proposing, and that happens to me often. Oh, wow.
So and you mentioned that new approach. So is that is that sort of what you're really helping navigate Is there a completely different approach to the Air Force is taking in terms of, you know, doing work with with the private sector,
we do both because the Air Force for a long time, the most recent solicitations up until just now have been mostly the open topic. So to give you a difference, in one solicitation two years ago, now, the army had 320 specific topics. So the army was saying, here's a problem, how would you solve it for us? The Air Force had about seven of that equivalent, but the airforce gets more money. So everything else for the Air Force in that particular solicitation was the open topic. So you have to go about that the Air Force is not going to tell you in that case, here's the problem. They're going to say you tell us what problem you solve for it for Ford, And who might you solve it for in the Air Force. Whereas now in this particular system, a solicitation there is no phase one, there was an open topic direct to phase two. But now they've kind of gone back and had some more specific topics. So there's a number if you're 60 range, I believe, have specific topics that the Air Force is asking for, for help with. So it does vary by solicitation, and it does just change. We expect that'll change weeks, but certainly the phase one open topic, which is the most popular to beat to come back. And then
gotcha, gotcha, Kate, what is your specialty? And what is your day to day there with with apex and in your, who you're interfacing with the majority of the time?
Sure, well, for apex, I am the director of what's called discovery and engagement. So I lead the process navigation team, which is a team of 12 consultants. And this really is where the magic of APEX happens, because these consultants all come from the small business world. And they are able to help the small businesses through through the SBIR STTR process from essentially start to finish. So that's my day to day role within apex, but I come from a university background. I have a PhD in neuroscience and was studying at University of Maryland, Baltimore, before doing a postdoc at the Navy research laboratory, and then being a staff scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory for a while. So I come from an academic research based background. And then, in addition to all of that, I also was active duty for five years as a member of the US Navy, and still am a member of the US Navy Reserve. So my background in both the military and the academic research side of the house, means that I am able to serve as a translator for the academic institutions. So I outreach to a lot of universities, trying to to get them on board with the idea that the Department of the Air Force is offering something different and is really shifting the paradigm when it comes to STTR is in the case of a university. And I can help translate all of the military acronyms. And you know, the the military is well known for acronyms in the Air Force has its own set of acronyms, and the Navy has its own set of acronyms in the army. And so I can I can help the universities understand the military and I can help the military understand universities. And so that really, is is what I do. And honestly what I love to do so. So when
Kate was saying silver sitter, and because she has military background, I don't. And so I say SBIR STTR as a part of the acronym soup that the military loves,
give me give me those what what is STTR? And when you meet definitions for those for our audience, and for me, because I have no idea.
So the SBIR stands for Small Business, innovative research. So basically, SBIR is the most of the funding in the program. And it doesn't require a university partner, but you can have a university partner as a contractor. So that's some of the main differences. The STTR is small business technology transfer, research, research. And in STTR requires you to have a university partner and sometimes there'll be solicitations we have one right now that required with SpaceForce that requires a university partner. So in those cases, those entrepreneurs because they money always goes through the entrepreneur and all the decisions are made by the entrepreneur, but that entrepreneur needs a university partner or they can't go to the dance, they need a dance partner. So in this case, so STTR has some advantages, because you get tied in with the universities you can use a lot of their resources.
Yeah, that makes sense. Especially if going that route. A lot of small businesses may go, that's just a that's an extra mountain to climb, right. Like, now I have to go build this relationship. But if an organization like, yeah, if apex, you have those? Now there's a there's a, there's a built in partnership there. Okay, what's when you're, you know, you mentioned reaching out and having those and Chris, you've talked about, some are required to have those partnerships with the universities. If either of you could give me an example of what is that? Like? What is the university's role in all of these would, you know, maybe an
Sure, no problem, we find that small businesses reach out to universities for three main reasons when they are seeking an STTR. They are the fact that a university has access to very large or expensive pieces of equipment that small businesses just don't have access to. So things like X ray crystallography machines from the biomedical side of the house, or things like wind tunnels from the, the, the aeronautical side of the house, right, those types of really big and very expensive pieces of equipment that small businesses just don't have a need a university partner for, but also so that that's, that's one reason is those pieces of equipment. The second reason is the university's bread and butter is high throughput testing, right? They have a lot of graduate students, they have a lot of postdocs that are all researching in labs, and has the capability of doing a lot of testing very fast and relatively cheaply, as compared with other services that would do those types of testing. And then the surveys and we see small businesses reach out to universities most frequently, is the fact that the university houses PhDs, who have spent 1020 30 years in one very narrowly focused area or field, and the small business has a problem has a question in that field. And they go to that PhD researcher, for a quick solution to their answer. The small business could could get the answer, I'm sure. But it might take a year, it might take six months. Whereas if they posed that same question to the PhD researcher at the University, they could do it near instantaneously, right? Maybe in a day, maybe in a week that could have that answer for the small business. And so those are, those are three of the most common reasons we see a partnership. And I think it's important to know that the university small business relationship is not always a cakewalk. Sometimes there is a little bit of frustration involved probably on from both perspectives, but the university sometimes will have a lot of red tape that they have to get through in order to get approval to participate in the STTR. Some universities are a lot better than others, they're much faster than others and cutting through that red tape. But still, the red tape exists in almost every university. And also the speed at which a small business must move in order to to to make money and to be successful as a small business is drastically different from the speed at which the university moves. And so I think that sometimes can cause a lot of friction between the two. And it's important that you start early, if you are seeking an STTR partner, it's important that you have that you that you build in a long runway, so to speak, for you to be able to achieve that partnership. Because if you start too late, it's just never going to happen. As much as the small business would want to partner with each other. And there's just some things that are in the way,
just to have that, that mindset and that awareness in the beginning to go. Like just to give them that heads up like twice as long as you think it's going to be. It's going to be this, this and this. And a lot of times just that frame can help smooth out a lot of those bumps, I imagine. Absolutely. Yes,
I had a VC once say to me, it always takes twice as much time and twice as much money as you guys say, well, and probably true to that was the STTR side. And as you said, Jason that often the entrepreneurs just say, Oh, this is too hard and they walk away. But the STTR has some huge advantages. And what we find is that once somebody has developed a relationship with the university, particularly one that's quick on their feet, it flourishes and they keep doing STTR because they win and the university provides real value. But what we have to tell them that shows where apex is roll is that whole idea of getting them there early is really important. So if today somebody wants Do an STTR. And they want and they don't have a university partner and it's due February 10, we would say, Hey, you better get going real fast. And you better work with somebody who's done this before, because you're not going to have this. If it's first time for both of you, it's not going to work. However, sometimes you may say, you know, you might think about waiting till the June solicitation, and then you got a lot more time but still get that relationship started today. And that's good for the university. It's good for the entrepreneur. And it's good for the Air Force, because they want to see relationships that have been developed.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What's I've heard a lot of benefits for the entrepreneur to work with universities, what's, what's that flip side? Is it just that experience for students? Does it go beyond that?
Well, there's dollars in an STTR, the way it works is that a minimum of 30% of the work and 30% of the dollars, they've got to go to that, that university partner. So in an open topic, phase one, which can be pretty modest, only 50k, it's still somewhere on the order of $15,000 has to go to the university. But in a phase two, which are typically 750k, up to 1.5 million, it starts to turn into real money. So from the university point of view, they would love to, you know, to be involved in cases where there's where there shouldn't be IP sharing, they also have the opportunity for licensing revenue in the future. So there is a pure monetary part of thing, you know, but then when to do that, and in professors at research, universities are generally measured on how much research dollars they bring into the university, you know, and this is, you know, a way it's a little bit slower go than if MIT is getting, you know, a $7 million contract, it takes a while, and SBIR STTR to make that happen. But for some smaller and not as well known universities HBCUs, for example, this is a great way for them to get into the research game. It's something that's required in some cases, the entrepreneurs want to do it. And they have designated defined amounts of dollars minimum, they have to
go to them. Oh, that's great. Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. What's, who out there should be
looking to really do contact Apex that consider working with Air Force and looking for those, you know, just that that revenue channel that opportunity to break into there.
I think that the small businesses and university entrepreneurs who think they have a technology that could be in any way helpful to the warfighter. So does your technology make the warfighters life safer? Does it make the warfighters job more efficient? Does it make the warfighters quality of life a little bit better in some way? Those are the types of things that those are the types of projects that the Air Force and really the DoD across the board is seeking to fund because of course they're the warfighter is the most important warfighting tool that the Department of Defense has. And so in order to in order to invest in the warfighter, they need the small businesses and the university entrepreneurs with their good ideas, you know, the the best and the brightest ideas, so to speak, to to come through their door. And those are the types of companies and university entrepreneurs that Apex could could definitely help. And that's
great. A great nugget to latch on to is that main filter is to have that warfighter in mind. Right? Like,
it's not. I don't know. So I'm
just thinking that, Oh, this is amazing. This is cool. This is like how does that if you can answer that question. That's probably a great first step. How does this benefit the warfighter? In the end, from the perspective of everything that we've seen from the air force, even what they've stated publicly, it seems like innovation is, is at the forefront of their mind in doing this entire process of doing business with the private sector, doing things better, faster than differently than they've done before. Is that Is that what you've seen?
In fact, the term that the Air Force has used is working at the speed of innovation. And we've seen it in the programs, it's, it's so much more venture capital like and me as a venture capital oriented person. I mean, I see the parallels all the time, the contracting is a lot faster. And the program, the open topic, take a look at some people by surprise, and not everybody is is good with it, but it attracts a lot of new entrants, and that's one of the goals is to take advantage of, of entrepreneurship and take advantage of innovation in our economy.
Yeah, that's great. So So what can somebody you know, an entrepreneur or university both and I know that's those are two separate
approaches here, but
what can they expect when they start out in this process and in working with Apex what's sort of step one and that you know, obviously some determination like you mentioned, Chris, of this is even a fit But then what is that that process from timeline to just something that's
outside of, you know,
a venture capital of what they would normally experience? What should they expect?
We've offered a number of one to many type of communications vehicles. So webinars that say that kind of help people decide they can spend a half an hour or 45 minutes and decide if this is a fit for them. So we describe the program who decide to describe typically how it tends to work. If they decide that that the Air Force program might be a good fit, we would suggest that when a solicitation opens, that they register with apex, they do have to register to get the support, which is no charge to the entrepreneurs due to our due to the fact that we're a program intermediary agreement organization with the Air Force. So the Air Force is paying for these services, their benefit, of course, is they get a better set of proposals. But if they register with us, then they have the chance to go a little bit deeper, we have one too many sessions that are only available to people who've registered. and a high percentage of those people get a one to one consulting. So the one to one consultant is going to sit down with them. And we're very direct during this. It's a, as Kate mentioned, it's 12, consultants, all of whom have tremendous background, we vary by our technical background, but we all share small business experience. And a lot of cases will look and say, Hey, this is really not going to be a good fit for you. Or you should look here because it might be better. So that's the way to get started. Because when you get registered, you start to work with a consultant, we'll try to help them as best we can. Just looking out for them and looking out for you know, the best results for the program. That's great.
Okay, what what does a university sort of expect in that process?
Yeah, I think one of the biggest advantages that Apex offers for a university is our matchmaking capability. So universities, oftentimes there will be an entrepreneur at a university who has spun out a company, or there's perhaps a postdoc, or a graduate student that knows that they don't want the research life for the rest of their life. They are, they're already thinking about seeking a career outside of academia. And for those types of people, this can be a really great program, because we can, we can help them partner with a small business that is interested in the same things they're interested in. So we call this matchmaking. It's on our website, which is apex, hyphen, innovates.org. And there, you can sign up for both the cohorts that Chris was just mentioning, and matchmaking. And so we have a list of universities and small businesses that have already said, Yes, I'd like to participate in a matchmaking. You don't have to sign up, you can just look at the list and see if you would like to be partnered with somebody, if so then all you have to do is send us an email, and we'll make the connection for you. And that's really one of the easiest ways for what one of the largest advantages to universities, because they are pulled in 1000 different directions. Everybody, a university is so focused on research, and then they have to do a million other things within their department, and sometimes focusing on commercialization of their technology is not at the forefront of what they're trying to do and what they need to do to be successful in the university. So we can help with that by helping them find this partner with which they you know, with with him, they can apply
it to the STD. No, that's great. Yeah, I would imagine if without somebody,
almost their singular role at a university of commercialization, what's going on? Like, it's such a different mindset, I would imagine that something like apex, especially such a resource, right, to be able to have that even for that singular role with that mindset, you know, so with this approach, and this whole dynamic between apex and entrepreneurs and universities in the Air Force, what are some of those tools and those innovative ways that you're connecting everybody?
That's a great question, Jason. And I think you're spot on. So the one of the ways that the Air Force is trying to solve this problem of not being able to pick up the phone and call the Air Force and get in contact with the with the right stakeholder is what's called Air Force and Space Force Tech Connect. And Apex actually had a role in developing this website. But it's a way for the entrepreneur to reach out to the Air Force and the Space Force and have somebody for their idea for their technology to the right stakeholder, right, the right government stakeholder, which is crucial to the small business's success in the SBIR STTR program, the Air Force definitely wants to see that there's somebody in the Air Force who is willing to say, we like this technology. We want this technology, we think it should be developed for reasons XY and Z. And that's what the Air Force and Space Force Tech Connect enables you to do. It enables you to get to at least start the conversation with somebody within the Air Force in the Space Force. Who can say, Yes, this technology is great, or this fits up our alley, because of x y&z and it really is a way to get the conversation started in an otherwise difficult situation to get the conversation started.
Yeah, that's great. Because that that makes it tangible, right? Like, it's not this nebulous. Sure, go, go, go talk to the Air Force, Sprite, and submit it into the ether, and see if it lands on somebody's desk. Cuz I think that's a lot of we think about dealing with the government at all we think about that part of the process. And that's daunting, right? So this makes it really tangible, that someone's going to grab this. And they're going to look for somebody, like you said, a stakeholder, somebody who's going to raise their hand at the Air Force and say, Yes, this is viable for the next step in the process. Or they're going to say no, right? And so there's, there's some answers there in like I said, something, something tangible, that that's amazingly helpful. I think we can all imagine some benefits to working with the Air Force and going through that process, if we have this this product that we think is going to be a really good fit. But why go through all of it that we know we're going to have to go through to do business? Is it? Is it simply the dollars? Or is there something more to it than that?
Well, the dollars are important. I mean that everybody who's in this situation knows that the valley of death is real. And getting that early stage funding is tough, and it might not even be available. Because over the years VCs have actually gotten a little more risk averse, because there's lots of other programs, state local nonprofit programs that can bring you some money. But the dollars are modest. But the this is significant early stage funding, because even in the Phase One approach for our open topic approach from the Air Force is 50k. And they're basically giving you that funding to help you develop a customer from the Air Force. But then the follow on is 750k. So now we're at some real money. But another thing is that the Air Force has been very open about the fact that they eventually want to buy products from entrepreneurs. That's the goal of this thing. And it's they want to get customers, they want you to get to what in the SBIR STTR parlato is phase three. Phase three doesn't eat any dollars from the program. But it says that a an agency, whether it's Homeland Security, or Department of Energy, or the Air Force is buying things from you, the Air Force wants to buy things from you. So you can get customers. And interestingly, that will let you get more capital. Because once you have customers VCs say, Hey, you have traction. And now that you have traction, were a lot more interested in the fact that the Air Force has funded you to the tune of almost a million dollars that gets interesting to them. And in fact, the Air Force has programs that will match dollars from the from VC. So from the VCs point of view, that's non dilutive capital, you know, they're saying, hey, if I come up with 2 million more, the airforce might come up with another million VCs like that. And then the last thing is, if you're using STTR, right, it really is a low cost way to make your technology come together. And to ease those costs that you're going to have to bear, you're gonna have to test your product, you're gonna have to do some research. So those four things are just things that will help you. So you want to get that early stage funding, you want to get customers, you want to get more funding, and you want to make sure your your development costs are as low as possible. And this program just helped that all happen.
That's great. I love that distinction, too. Because as we were going through this, my mind is on that. Phase one, phase two, okay, I'm getting funded. And I'm forgetting about that. Honestly, I was forgetting about that, that in the goal of like, okay, yes. And then now we're going to buy your products. That's a great distinction and a great mindset to get into like, just like you said, they're basically funding you so that they can then become a customer of yours. So what's next? What's what's that next evolution of APEX,
we are always seeking to grow our network. So we invite all university entrepreneurs and small business entrepreneurs to connect with us on our social media sites. We have LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as our website, which is Apex hyphen, innovates.org. Feel free to reach out to us in any of those platforms. We would love to have a conversation with you to see how we can help you. Because ultimately, that's what we're here to do. We're, we're here to help the entrepreneurs get connected with right people within the Department of the Air Force. So we would love to do that for you. If you think that you have technology that could be of interest to the Department of the Air Force.
Thank you both for being on this has been really great. I really appreciate it and I hope it opens up some somebody's eyes to some additional opportunities.
Thank you so much for having us. It's really been a pleasure.
Thanks for having me.
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