By Hyperspace Challenge Editorial Team

In March of 2020, just before the nation went into Coronavirus lockdown, Radley Serafico, a research chemist with the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), began working as government lead with Hyperspace Challenge to get a better understanding of how the military can more effectively connect with commercial partners. 

His work with the accelerator, which exposes Radley to the startup mindset and methodology, is designed to aid AFRL in identifying startups with whom it can collaborate to further its research and development efforts in the space sector and expedite innovation. 

Radley, who previously conducted research analysis and managed lab resources for AFRL, recently sat down with the Hyperspace Challenge editorial staff to talk about how the accelerator model works better for government scientists who want to keep their finger on the pulse of new technological advancements in the startup world – and why that insight is so important.

HSPC: Why are accelerators like Hyperspace Challenge useful to you as a government scientist?

Radley: The accelerator helps us discover new companies that we otherwise would not necessarily know about. We usually work with a lot of large companies, and they are typically the ones that beat out the startups to give us ideas. This is the dynamic that has existed for a long time. The fact that we can now use accelerators like Hyperspace Challenge to connect with startups we have never heard of gives us different perspectives and different ideas we can utilize to enhance our research objectives.

HSPC: What is so valuable about this reach? Is the value in learning about the technology itself, or gaining the perspective of the startups and the way they are looking at developing that technology? 

Radley: It is all of those things. We like searching for new perspectives. It gives us an edge to see what kind of technological advances are being undertaken in the private sector. And if we can find advances that match our mission profile, that supports our problem solicitation process. 

For example, last year, one of the government accelerators was researching infrared sensing, and that was directly in our wheelhouse. We got a lot of value from that research. So, my program manager and some of the scientists in our group went out to some of those startup meetings, and to the demo day, just to see what other people are researching and to see if we can buy into any of these types of technologies, and I believe we actually pulled a couple of contacts from that experience that have been very helpful to our program. 

HSPC: How is the startup thinking differently from the way the larger companies think?

Radley: Startups are typically more agile because they are still trying to develop their technology and define their customer base. They also usually have new and cutting-edge concepts that more established companies may not have considered. Due to the infancy of some of their technology, the technology is also very flexible and can still be modified for various uses. This is especially important for an area like space, because we’re still discovering what is needed in that environment. There is a lot of existing tech out there that could be pivoted to fill these needs, but it needs to be flexible enough to accommodate that pivot.  

HSPC: Does it give you a competitive edge to see what other people are researching and building? 

Radley: Yes, because it gives us access to potential collaboration partners that we otherwise would not have known about that we could hopefully put on contract at some point in the future. 

HSPC: Why is the accelerator approach to identifying new technology better than a more traditional approach? 

Radley: We typically find out what kind of technologies are out there by going to various conferences. We’ll assess what other people are researching and how that fits with what we’re researching and determine if there’s some kind of collaboration opportunity. But conferences can be hit or miss. Some startups are there. Some startups are not. 

An accelerator is directly aimed at finding the startups first. This gives the startups a platform that provides them with visibility alongside larger companies that might overshadow them in a more traditional conference setting. So, the accelerator scenario is better for us than going to a conference and just hoping we’ll bump into that one scientist that has that one idea that we really need to talk to them about. An accelerator is also more personal. The whole point is to meet each startup and learn more about them and their work. There is a stronger focus on building relationships, and this generally helps enrich the collaboration process, resulting in partnerships that can be even more valuable in the long-run – to both the scientist and the startup.