Army’s xTechSearch May Add Specialized Challenges
The program may target more COVID-19 solutions and advanced antennas.
The U.S. Army’s xTechSearch program, which is designed to rapidly develop technologies, may offer more specialized challenges similar to the one recently conducted to develop a medical ventilator to help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
The xTechSearch program develops partnerships primarily with nontraditional businesses that do not normally work with the military but that may offer dual-use solutions the Army never knew it needed. While most of the challenges have been wide open with companies allowed to pitch any solution, the program recently issued a challenge targeted specifically at developing the COVID-19 ventilator.
The event closed with a total of five winners, each receiving $100,000. For example, AirMid Critical Care Products Inc., won for a bellow-based ventilator and Spiro Devices LLC offered a breathing bag-based solution. Other winners include SISU, Woodward Inc./Colorado State University and World Ventilator Foundation.
“We also run other competitions that could be problem focused, like the COVID-19 challenge, where there was a problem, a need for a low-cost, easy-to-make ventilator designed to last, that would be robust enough for COVID-19 treatment but at a price point and a manufacturability that wasn’t out there on the market right now,” says Zeke Topolosky, Strategic Partnerships Office at the Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory (CCDC-ARL) and xTechSearch program manager.
Now, Bruce Jette, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, says the service may issue more specific challenges similar to the quest for a COVID-19 ventilator.
“I thought that was a pretty good demonstration of how to potentially get companies that were not normally working in our space to address specific issues that we have. We’re considering what other approaches like that, or mini-xTechSearches we might pursue, Jette says. “We have looked at whether or not there are other things we need to do within the COVID-19 response. The Army’s got quite a bit of efforts going on in different areas. But I could see a number of other areas that might be interesting to pursue.”
Advanced antenna technologies may be another option. “I think we can do better than a long wire sticking out of the top of the vehicle with the standard omni-directional whip antenna. Maybe there are some other technologies that people are ready to offer,” Jette suggests.
The service already is working with the Army’s Ground Vehicle System’s Center on what is known as an Innovation Combine competition. The event was being planned even before the COVID-19 ventilator challenge and will take a hybrid approach, combining a prize competition with potential contract awards to the winners with two specific challenges. Some companies will pitch solutions for scalable portable power and energy solutions, and others will specifically address reducing the weight and increasing the survivability of future Army vehicles..
“One of the areas that we’re looking for that’s kind of unusual for this type community is weight reduction and survivability improvements for the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle. We’ve put that out there,” Jette says.
Jette notes that it can be a difficult balance between a pitch-us-anything contest and a contest designed to solve a specific Army problem. “It’s an interesting thing that’s a challenge for us. I want to keep the door open for anybody coming in with any good ideas; yet, at the same time, we want to communicate some of our specific areas that we do have an interest in. The difficulty all the time is this balance between specificity and open door.”
If the service gets too specific in describing its requirements, the responses are more likely to be similar to those resulting from a traditional, slow-moving and expensive request for proposals process.
The winner of the Innovation Combine event is scheduled to be announced July 15.