Working with the DoD made easy: SBIR Open Topics

Dec 19, 2019 · 4 min read

There’s probably a reason most startups haven’t heard of or considered the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program as the go-to source for funding.

In the past, the Department of Defense’s version has typically been geared toward companies already focused on the defense industry that are equipped to brave the lengthy paperwork and timelines for getting a contract — not really something most startups are able to deal with.

Individual solicitations that were listed used to be a collection of requirements for a product or service the DOD needed and companies would have to compete for that specific contract.

Granted, there were (and still are) multiple topics running at one time that companies can sift through, but there hasn’t really been a pathway for companies with a solution outside of those listed requirements to apply to for the potential to work with the Air Force or other branches.

In come: SBIR Open Topics

“Open Topics,” on the other hand, have completely transformed the way the DOD does business.

Several barriers have been removed or mitigated including a shorter application process, an accelerated contract award, and a shorter period of performance — all designed to find innovations the DOD didn’t know they needed.

Since the introduction of the Open Topic by the Air Force Research Laboratory, National Security Innovation Network, and AFWERX in late 2018 through August 2019, we have received more than 2900 submissions, awarded more than 900 contracts worth a combined total of approximately $220 million.

Still not sure? Check out this video:

Why Apply?

  • Non-Dilutive Funding

The government doesn’t take any stake in your company or receive returns from your profits like other funding sources might.

  • Future contracts don’t require additional competition

Most businesses that hope to get a contract with the government must go through a competitive process and SBIR checks the box for that requirement. So, rather than going through another process in order to work with a government entity, SBIR helps you get your foot in the door.

  • Scaling potential

The Air Force alone employs upwards of 600 thousand people, manages more than 60 bases (which are essentially mini-cities), and has a budget of approximately $160 billion per year.

Not only does this mean there are a lot of potential customers within the service, but also that we could use products and services from nearly any industry you could think of: from medical to sustainability to gaming; and any career field you could think of: from marketing to finance to civil engineering.

  • Work with any U.S. government agency

After receiving a Phase I contract through this process, your company is eligible to receive a contract with any federal U.S. government agency from NASA to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Homeland Security.

How to Apply:

  1. Is your startup eligible?
  • Must have less than 500 employees
  • Be at least 51% U.S.-owned
  • Must have some non-defense traction (sales, pilot programs, pre-sales, etc.)

2. Conduct market research: DOD focus areas and user needs

While the Open Topic allows any businesses that meet the SBIR criteria to apply, we encourage applicants to view our current list of DOD focus areas and Air Force user needs to determine if your product or service might be desired by a certain unit.

3. Prepare to submit required materials

Start by applying for a Phase I contract, which requires a 15-slide pitch deck and a 5-page online application.

4. Apply during the application window: May 20 to June 17, 2020

There are three Open Topic application windows each year. If selected for Phase I, you will receive $50 thousand to work with the Air Force for three months to see if your solution can be adapted to meet the needs of a end-user.

5. Find an Air Force customer

You must locate an Air Force customer and have them sign a memorandum of agreement signifying their intention to work with your company before you can apply to Phase II and potentially receive up to $3 million for a trial period.

6. Progress to a contract with any U.S. Federal Government Agency

After the trial run, you are given the right to a contract without further competition with any agency in the U.S. Federal Government. This is possible whether or not you get a Phase II contract.


The next application period runs from May 20 to June 17, 2020.

Get all the materials you need to apply on our website:

AFWERX is the Air Force’s community of innovators who encourage and facilitate connections across industry, academia, and military to create transformative opportunities and foster a culture of innovation.

Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook for the latest news and opportunities to get involved.


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The U.S. Air Force’s network of innovators who connect Airmen with the resources needed to transform ideas into reality.

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