It’s been five years since the first Hyperspace Challenge program commenced in the fall of 2018. Now, after the business accelerator has supported the work of 61 startups and universities, and dozens of government innovators, the team is asking, what’s next?
Where It Started
The Hyperspace Challenge began with a vision: foster better relationships between government innovators and the startup ecosystem in order to reduce barriers between the government and commercial sectors and to drive innovation more quickly for government agencies to benefit the U.S. Space Force.
The program, run by the Air Force Research Lab and CNM Ingenuity, was designed to address critical mission needs of government innovators working on space programs. The Hyperspace Challenge process begins with an invitation for startups and university researchers to preliminarily meet with government innovators and determine if there is synergy between commercial technologies and the government’s needs. Following this, teams create applications in direct response to the mission needs. For those who are selected, the Hyperspace Challenge facilitates further programming which culminates in a Hyperspace Accelerator Week and pitch competition.
For the teams chosen to participate in the program, it is the direct conversations with government innovators that often translate to lasting relationships. Through a greater understanding of shared language, distinctly articulated needs and constraints, as well as access to far reaching networks of professionals within government agencies, the accelerator has fostered a level of government-commercial collaboration that is particularly useful for advancing technology for space applications.
And, it is no accident that the program is based in New Mexico. With two national laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base, and the Air Force Research Lab, the state’s established presence as a science and technology center has been critical to the underlying approach of the Hyperspace Challenge. New Mexico’s cultural heritage, which includes 19 pueblos and settlement history that reaches back over four centuries, has brought together diverse perspectives in order to thrive even while addressing history’s greatest challenges. This blending of paradigms over time now provides an ideal environment to support a new generation of space innovation.
Where It Stands
Starting with the first successful program and in each year since, Hyperspace Challenge’s approach has helped many burgeoning startups and academic researchers pursue Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts, Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contracts, CRADAs (Cooperative Research and Development Agreements), and federally funded grants, much of which can be traced to work developed over the course of the Hyperspace Challenge program. In fact, participating companies have secured over $300 million in government contracts cumulatively – and that number continues to grow.
While contracts and funding are exciting to see, a more allusive but equally meaningful measure of success for the Hyperspace Challenge team and participants has been the development of a growing network of symbiotic government-commercial relationships.
“I was able to leverage my Hyperspace experience in a successful proposal for project funding from the University Consortium Research Opportunity (UCRO), a program that the Air Force Research Lab facilitates to advance research that aligns with its mission and the U.S. Space Force,” notes Professor Anthony Torres, the 2021 Hyperspace Challenge crowd-favorite winner from Texas State University. Responding to the role of relationship building within the program, Torres adds, “After Hyperspace, I’m suddenly this go-to guy for ZBLAN [a type of fluoride glass that has untapped potential if it can be produced in microgravity environments]. One company hired me as a consultant, others just want to pick my brain.”
For participants like Torres, the conversations and ongoing connections built through the program have catapulted research and related technologies to the next level, in part by providing key insights into the real-world technology constraints the government faces.
Where It’s Headed
Lauren Hunt, who now oversees both Hyperspace Challenge and the U.S. Space Force’s sister accelerator, Catalyst Space Accelerator, believes this is only the beginning when it comes to the potential future impact of the program.
Hunt was a government researcher with the Air Force Research Lab when she first came into contact with the Hyperspace Challenge. She recalls thinking then that the program was more than an accelerator. In her eyes, she remembers, it seemed to have equal footing in community building and innovation acceleration.
“A primary focus for Hyperspace Challenge has always been creating meaningful connections that allow people to take an actual next step,” Hunt says. “Central to this is prioritizing access to government researchers and innovators who can help small businesses and university researchers apply their technology or research to real-world mission needs. We ask – and really commit to driving dialogue around – how we can help facilitate meaningful connections, so that both the government and commercial sides can get to the heart of what future technology and space-relevant applications could look like.
“For us, success has many faces, but in an ideal world, the process means that we are able to find good matches on both ends between our government innovators and the companies and universities who participate,” Hunt explains, adding, “we want to remain nimble, and live by our original approach of responding to the real-world needs of the space ecosystem.”
In order to do this, the Hyperspace Challenge team paused in 2022 to reflect on past processes and strategize for the future. “Out of that effort,” Hunt says, “we reinforced for ourselves the importance of community building, and we now believe even more strongly that the Hyperspace Challenge is uniquely positioned to connect universities, startups, and government entities in a way that no other programs are doing at the moment.”
When thinking about upcoming programs, Hunt is quick to underscore the commitment her team has to encouraging university participation. “We really see how universities are a critical element of technology development. These institutions are often where new ideas come from, they provide a pipeline of potential technology solutions, and they are developing the next generation of emerging professionals.”
With this perspective in mind, the Hyperspace Challenge team is heading into 2023 with a renewed commitment to facilitating connections. Reflecting on the exciting future of the program, Hunt says, “It is important to remember that it can take a lot of work for a company to advance from an early-stage startup and move ideas and technology forward. What is rarely underscored publicly is that it requires a whole community of people with different backgrounds, different experiences, and different expertise to drive innovation. Progress in the space industry is not going to be one moment we can point to. It will be a series of moments that propel technology solutions forward. Forming the community that can help do that and that can carry everyone through each stage, that’s a major goal of the Hyperspace Challenge as we move into the new year and beyond.”