Four Ways Startups Can Maximize Government Contract Opportunity

By the Hyperspace Challenge Editorial Team

When we wrote earlier this month about a new breed of government programs designed to help startups pitch and secure government contracts faster and more effectively, we highlighted CrowdAI, which has recently won multiple Air Force pitch competitions, including Hyperspace Challenge.

Indeed, CrowdAI has been so effective at winning these competitions in the last four years since it was founded, it has secured multiple government contracts and organically fueled the company’s growth.

Cliff Massey, CrowdAI’s head of business operations and strategy, emphasizes that logging this kind of success requires a certain level of commitment to building government relationships, and a certain amount of aptitude in navigating the system. 

Here are the four steps he recommends to startups contemplating a relationship with the federal government:    

1.     Get actively involved in the SBIR program

Massey says a good place to start is with the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which was designed specifically to provide small businesses with a better chance to compete for government contracts by helping them develop their technology in line with the government’s research and development needs, as well as commercialize this technology for broader application.

Founded in 1982 and known as “America’s Seed Fund,” the SBIR program generally solicits technology solutions via RFPs (Request for Proposals) and awards grants to the most competitive solutions. These grants fund feasibility studies and the creation of proofs-of-concept.

One of the primary benefits of utilizing the SBIR program, Massey says, is that the program’s RFPs originate from 11 different government agencies (versus only one agency or a single branch of the armed forces), so it gives startups one-stop access to a wider opportunity funnel.

2.     Participate in government accelerators and incubators

While the SBIR program has real value, it also has limitations.

“The RFPs solicited by the SBIR program typically request a response to a very specific need,” says Massey, “so you’re restricted to those parameters” – and to the pace of the RFP process.

But a new breed of government programs launched over the past few years by multiple branches of the armed forces, including the Air Force, removes these limitations and allows startups to get closer to decision-makers within the federal government faster. 

CrowdAI got its start with the Air Force Research Lab’s Hyperspace Challenge accelerator, and Massey credits this with enabling the company to significantly deepen its government relationships.

“Going through the Hyperspace Challenge really jump-started our entire Department of Defense network,” Massey said.

These programs usually center on a theme and offer “problem-statements” for startups to tackle. From there, companies have an opportunity to interface directly with government scientists to develop potential solutions and evolve their technology as needed, in a process that Massey describes as entirely “iterative.”

3.     Talk to people whose work you don’t think will have relevance to your tech

When CrowdAI went into the Hyperspace Challenge accelerator, Massey says the team reviewed in advance the “problem statements” that were presented to their cohort and had a pretty good understanding at the outset of how and where their technology was relevant. At that point, it would have been easy for the company to focus solely on connecting with the scientists associated with those problem statements.

Massey emphasizes that this is a mistake.

“I would strongly encourage companies to go into the accelerator process with an open mind, and to meet and talk to everyone they can – not just the people they initially believe will be the best fit for their tech,” he says.

By talking to other problem-sponsors, startups may discover that their technology could have some relevance to a problem they didn’t originally anticipate. Additionally, CrowdAI discovered that every problem-sponsor is a potential networking opportunity, so the more problem-sponsors you meet and get to know, the broader the network becomes.

Branching out this way has, “yielded us connections that have been extremely valuable” longer-term, Massey says.

4.     Pivot your pitch to reflect specific problems

Once CrowdAI heard the problem statements, not only did they give significant thought to how their technology could offer a solution – they made a point to reflect this product-market fit in their pitch deck. This took extra time and effort, but Massey said he believes it helped the company win.

“We saw other companies in the competition that just stuck with their standard pitch deck when they presented their tech to the problem sponsors,” Cliff notes. “You really don’t want to rely too much on the problem-sponsors to make a direct connection between your technology and their needs.” If you do, you run the risk that they don’t fully understand the full potential of your technology.

Massey says that his company’s executives opted to make complete revisions to their deck at the eleventh hour in order to build a new, and more relevant narrative.

“If you’ve effectively outlined the end-user need, made a compelling case that your technology has an application to that need, and identified next steps for development, then the only other (leading) question is, ‘Where do we go from here?’”

In the case of CrowdAI, the only direction is up.