Government contracts are notoriously hard to acquire. It takes many months of painstaking work to get through the gamut of regulations that weigh about 8.5 lb when printed out. Startups and small companies, including those developing artificial intelligence, often do not have the resources to compete for a share of this market. The US Air Force is changing that by streamlining the process in what it calls Pitch Days, the first of which was on March 6 and 7, 2019 in New York.
The process is quite simple: invite companies to submit applications a month before the Pitch Day, vet the companies, choose the promising ones, and let them make their pitch on the day. More than 400 companies applied for this inaugural event, and 59 made the cut. Only 51 companies across 15 industries received Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR), but it only took minutes for these companies to receive their initial funding. The total for the day was about $3.5 million paid through a credit card.
The total contract value awarded for that week (including 122 Phase I SBIR contracts and 69 Phase II SBIR contracts awarded prior to Pitch Day) would eventually fund $75 million for 242 contracts. Most award recipients had little or no previous experience working with the government.
The success of this initiative prompted the Air Force to plan more Pitch Days. The next one will reportedly focus on space.
The dramatic shift in acquisition policies is particularly important to AI companies, which are often the youngest and smallest of startups today with little or no traction in government work. Under normal circumstances, these small AI companies would not get within whistling distance of a government audience, let alone a contract.
Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson stated: “Events such as Pitch Day allow us to connect small businesses to the operator, then to a real problem and bring those two together to build a partnership.”
The mission of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), launched in June 2018, “is to transform the DoD by accelerating the delivery and adoption of AI to achieve mission impact at scale…use AI to solve large and complex problem sets that span multiple services.”
The Air Force believes that JAIC provides a venue through which the military can collaborate on and share AI initiatives. However, the service took it a step further by creating its own AI team headed by Capt. Michael Kanaan. According to Kanaan, the 22-strong team will focus on “AI plans, AI application understanding from legal to personnel to logistics and maintenance … and all the way into intel operations, assessment, the whole gamut.” He further plans to encourage the acquisition of computer coding skills within the service through the Air Force Computer Language Initiative.