Three Reasons University Researchers Should Join Government Business Accelerators

By Gabe Mounce, AFRL-NM

The Hyperspace Challenge launched in 2018 to accelerate innovation in the U.S. Space Force by helping government innovators from across a range of government agencies engage with startups that are rapidly shaping the future of space. 

Today, the Hyperspace Challenge is extending that reach to universities

Many technologies beyond the traditional space and aerospace domains will be needed as our journey into space advances, and we recognize that it’s important for us to engage those technologies from a wide spectrum of sectors including the academic community. 

So, when our 2020 cohort of 13 finalists included research teams from two schools, we were thrilled and inspired.

The Institute for Assured Autonomy at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering focused during the cohort on developing technology that ensures autonomous systems in space are safe, secure, effective and reliable. 

Meanwhile, the Robotics, Unmanned Vehicles, Intelligent Systems and Control Laboratory 

(RUVICON Lab) in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at New Mexico State University worked on the creation of rapid optimization methods, real-time guidance and control algorithms, and power management control systems for advanced autonomous vehicles and robots in space. 

A few months after their participation in the 2020 cohort, when we sat down with both teams to find out how the Hyperspace Challenge had impacted their institutions and work, we consistently heard three things. The Hyperspace Challenge allowed them to:  

  • Plug into government ecosystems that would otherwise have been inaccessible; 
  • Gain exposure to the latest innovations in the new space sector; and
  • Establish long-lasting relationships that benefit both faculty and students. 

As we endeavor to accelerate the exchange of innovation between academic institutions and government agencies, we have launched a University Research Team Accelerator program that  will continue to forge these relationships.

Greg Falco, who led the Johns Hopkins University team, and Dr. Steven Stochaj from the RUVICON Lab team, explain why this is so important.  

Can you describe your experience working with Hyperspace Challenge? 

GF: Hyperspace Challenge facilitated access to federal agencies and affiliates that have amazing experiences to share and tough problems to be worked on. It would have been exceedingly difficult or entirely happenstance to connect with some of the people they put us in touch with. Thanks to them, we had access to tap into an otherwise rather tight-knit community. Also, the Hyperspace Challenge team is eager to help navigate the complex federal landscape.

SS: All the virtual meetings during the Hyperspace Challenge program provided incredible opportunities to us in this pandemic situation. Through well-organized Zoom meetings, we could meet various future collaborators, government accelerators and customers within only two months. From the meetings and discussions, we could elaborate our research directions to align with the needs of government customers.  

What value did you see in applying to the 2020 Hyperspace Challenge cohort, and how does your work align with and benefit the government customer? 

GF: The value in applying to the cohort, beyond the connections, was to get a sense of what other innovators are doing in the new space sector. Being able to engage directly with some of the startups and learning about their technology, helped us get a sense of existing technologies relevant to space systems. For university research, we are always trying to be thinking 10-20 years down the road, but it’s a bit hard to do that without getting a sense of the current tech landscape. 

Hyperspace Challenge gave us the chance to learn about some of the really tough problems that the U.S. Space Force and Space and Missile Systems Center are dealing with, so as we come up with our futuristic solutions, they can be translated to the real world. This directly benefits the government customer because by sharing their tough technical challenges with us, they get access to rigorous and creative thinking that comes with academic research and ultimately, they can engage with prototypes that we develop and determine how to best scale these solutions.

Why would government innovators be interested in university teams and how do they differ from commercial-sector startups when it comes to government R&D? 

GF: University teams bring a bunch of raw knowledge, technical insight and curiosity which can be molded to help solve government problems. Given there is no major financial incentive for university teams, the engagement is perhaps more genuine on a technical level where there doesn’t need to be as much showmanship – instead focusing on the problem at hand and the learnings that will come from researching and building towards a solution.

SS: University teams can develop and test more innovative methods and technologies with less risk than commercial sector startups. University teams can also do more fundamental research work that can be commercialized in the near future. Moreover, university teams can develop a diverse and well-trained workforce for government customers and industries. This is critical for sustainable government R&D activities.

Why is it important for universities and government accelerators to increasingly  collaborate? How do you see their collaboration evolving? 

GF: Universities bring a different perspective which doesn’t have the time or financial pressure of startups. Yes, engagements with universities may take longer, but the relationships are often lasting and mutually beneficial for the researchers, students and government customers. As more government customers realize the different perspective, rigor and creativity that universities bring I expect to see more inclusion in such accelerators. I think collaborations between universities and government customers will evolve to have multiple stages of engagement – similar to how startups have multiple stages. Startups and government customers can start off with accelerators and then move to SBIRs, and then larger contracting vehicles. I could see a similar progression of programs for engagements with universities.

 SS: Breakthroughs by university researchers can become important commercial products and can create jobs. The government accelerator’s role would be critical to catalyze this process and guide university researchers’ efforts to align with government customers. We have recently seen more collaborations between universities and government accelerators.

Are you part of a University research team that may be interested in joining the Hyperspace Challenge’s 2021 cohort? Visit our website to learn more about how the program works and register now for the first step in the process: participating in our online Discovery Sessions, running August 13 to September 3, where you’ll meet government innovators from a range of government agencies; learn about the needs of their current missions; and determine how and if your technology might help.