Charles J. Cohen, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer for Cybernet Systems Corporation, shared his thoughts and experience during a panel discussion at the U.S. Army Science and Technology Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on 11 July 11 2023.
The “Roundtable” series facilitates discussion in areas of interest to the military acquisition community. July’s event featured multiple panels of government, academia and industry representatives, whose conversations focused on military research and acquisition-related topics, which included expanding the industrial base by helping small businesses cross the defense acquisition industry’s “valley of death,” among others.
The discussion in which Cohen participated, “SBIRs Participants Panel,” concentrated on the concerns of defense industry small businesses, with particular emphasis on the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. All participants had opportunities to take the floor and share their individual experiences and make recommendations for improvements.
During Cohen’s time, he addressed how he scaled initial SBIR investments with two stories from his career.
In his first story, Cohen’s organization had a Phase II SBIR contract several years ago with the Army’s Future Combat Systems to recognize large-caliber munitions for the Paladin system to determine whether the munitions were explosive, illuminating or another type. Cohen said, “It became clear at the beginning of the second phase that it probably would not go beyond Phase II,” he said. Cohen explained that the large primes weren’t interested in using that SBIR-developed technology, which was being funded for tech and proof of concept, and at that point, the project’s future did not appear promising.
However, a U.S. Army colonel, who was serving in Iraq, was searching in Google and saw Cybernet’s website post about the project. He called Cybernet directly to express interest in a capability that would work with small-caliber ammunition to allow for its inspection and sorting for reuse in training.
“Because of the SBIR effort, they were able to sole-source that contract, and within 90 days of turn-on, we had a system in Kuwait sorting 50,000 rounds a day,” Cohen said. “But there was no place for that colonel to go to see the advanced technology that small businesses had done to find [a solution for his problem]. Google has changed so much I’m not sure he’d find [that post] again. I wish there was a place I could put my information [like a database] wherein if someone searched ‘artificial intelligence,’ our company would appear, they could see what we’ve done, and then build off the SBIR program.”
Cohen’s second story focused more specifically on his partnering with commercial entities, in this case with Toyota Tsusho America, Inc. (TAI), a Toyota-owned American subsidiary, to scale SBIR investment. A few years ago, Cybernet had a Phase II SBIR project with the Navy for a tablet system, which enabled Navy repair personnel to pull PDFs through advanced searches to perform repairs and maintenance. Cohen said that in the end, he was told the Navy couldn’t find a program of record for this successful technology.
However, the Navy held a defense conference during this Phase II, and invited all of its SBIR program participants. Under this SBIR effort, Cybernet featured the tablet technology and its autonomy innovations at its booth, and this conference appearance led to a meeting with Rolls Royce. Cohen said that Rolls Royce ultimately passed on Cybernet’s offerings, but a woman who had attended the meeting later told her husband, who worked for TAI: “This is what you’ve been looking for.”
“Within a couple weeks, vice presidents from TAI came to Cybernet, saw our work, and now we’re in the final stages of a joint venture, and we’re currently deploying three autonomous platforms throughout the country at their warehouses,” Cohen said. “They are doing other minor programs with us, they support us on SBIR, and I’m confident that because of the work we did for them, that’s how we got the Assault Vehicle Breacher program. It’s luck, but it’s prepared luck, [as it was] because the Navy tried mixing it in with industry and I got to directly talk to people in industry and explain the technology.”
After the discussion panel, Cohen said he looks forward to participating in future events.
“I think the panel was a huge success, and I’m honored that I was invited to participate,” Cohen said. “The Army was very open to hearing positives and negatives, and they are committed to implementing improvements to support the warfighter, especially in facilitating technological advancements from small and large businesses.”