In break from typical contract process, Air Force awards more than $20 million from hotel ballroom

Key Points
  • The U.S. Air Force awarded $22.5 million in government contracts to small companies focused on space.
  • The two-day inaugural event, dubbed Space Pitch Day, is a break from the typical monthslong government contract process.
Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett speaks during the commencement of the U.S. Air Force Space Pitch Day, Nov. 5, 2019, San Francisco.
Senior Airman Christian Conrad | U.S. Air Force

SAN FRANCISCO — Outside a hotel ballroom in the heart of downtown San Francisco, the U.S. Air Force awarded $22.5 million in government contracts to small companies focused on space technologies.

The two-day inaugural event, dubbed Space Pitch Day, is a break from the typical monthslong government contract process. Instead, the Air Force's approach was to design an event to give small business owners the opportunity to meet with and pitch their ideas directly to the military's acquisition team outside of the Pentagon.

Following their pitches, the Air Force had the opportunity to extend an on-the-spot government contract. What's more, companies could then receive initial payment from the contract via a government credit card swipe on a Square reader.

The push for an unlikely venue and unusual contract process are credited to Will Roper, the Air Force's acquisition head.

"It's not enough to develop and procure systems anymore. We've got to get in the business of buying ideas and generating ideas," Roper told a small group of reporters in San Francisco. "That's part of what we are doing here. We want to be where innovation is happening," he said.

Before the Air Force rolled out the Pitch Day series, Roper bristled at the notion that critics might question the process. He explained that while the rapid pace will likely come as a surprise for people accustomed to hearing about government waste in the acquisition process, this event was tailored to small businesses that require immediate financing.

"For those that think the credit card is a gimmick, well, they need to come down and work with companies for whom money matters," Roper said earlier this year. "That paycheck today means they are now focused on our mission and not making payroll," he added, noting that otherwise, companies would have to take out bank loans in the months leading up to receiving government contracts.

Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks to a crowd of small businesses, venture capitalists, and Airmen during the Inaugural Air Force Pitch Day in Manhattan, New York, March 7, 2019.
Tech Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr. | US Air Force

Earlier this year, the Air Force invited 75 companies to submit a written pitch that was then vetted by a team of contracting officers. Following the preliminary pitch, the Air Force invited 30 companies to present at Space Pitch Day in San Francisco.

All 30 companies were awarded an on-the-spot contract worth $750,000 each following their pitch. Of those 30 businesses, eight were selected by the Air Force to compete for additional funding of up to $3 million.

Within minutes of signing a government contract, each company received payment via a Square credit card reader.

"This is not the usual pace of the United States government," Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said, kicking off the event. "The bottom line is we need you and the creativity that you bring," she said to the room of business owners and investors.

"We have to transition from an industrial age model of acquisition to something more modern," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson, who oversees a $7 billion budget for space research and acquisition. "Gone are the days where all of the innovation and all of the technology comes from the Department of Defense," he added.

While the event in San Francisco was focused on space, the Air Force has held multiple Pitch Day events throughout the country. The first-ever Pitch Day took place in March in the neon heart of New York City.

The Air Force awarded more than 200 contracts valued at $75 million over the course of a week in Times Square.

On average, the Air Force awarded a contract and made the first payment via government credit card swipe in 15 minutes. The fastest happened in just three minutes. Prior to Pitch Day, the fastest service contract award took three months.

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