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Getting a fighting chance for U.S. grants

A Pentagon program with centers at two Southland universities helps little companies compete better.

January 03, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In a tree-lined business park here, a start-up company with 17 employees hopes to compete with mega-size defense contractors and give a battlefield advantage to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Avaak Inc. -- the name comes from a Hebrew word for dust -- hopes to beat the big high-tech firms in developing a pint-size camera and transmitter that combat troops can use to gather intelligence without unduly risking their lives.

The common wisdom holds that the Pentagon budget is a piggy bank for big companies that can afford lobbyists and consultants but that the little guy -- the maverick entrepreneur or the start-up like Avaak -- is just out of luck.

To correct that mismatch, the Pentagon in recent years has launched several efforts to see that start-ups aren't frozen out.

One of them is the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology, which is helping Avaak navigate the twists and turns of the Pentagon testing and procurement system.

With centers at San Diego State University and Cal State San Bernardino, CCAT (pronounced sea-cat) helps small businesses and others find financial backers and deal with the complex process of applying for research and development money from the federal government. Students often are assigned to do studies and other duties.

The Avaak prototype camera, about the size of a large marshmallow, is meant to enable troops to see around corners or into enemy-held buildings by tossing several of the devices into the area in question.

Business majors from San Diego State developed a business plan for Avaak. Avaak's goal is to enhance the images, increase the transmission and make the tiny devices tougher.

"The objective is to ruggedize them to the point where the SEALs can use them," said Gioia Messinger, co-founder and chief executive of Avaak.

Along with providing advice, CCAT plays the role of middleman for new firms and tinkerers, vetting applicants for federal grants and other support.

In six years, CCAT has evaluated about 995 proposals and made more than 300 awards for marketing, research and development and business support worth about $23.4 million. By one calculation, more than 2,700 workers are engaged in projects funded, at least in part, by CCAT.

"Our goal is make innovation occur faster," said Louis G. Kelly, chairman of the CCAT executive board. "We seek out early-stage innovative technology and help people through the morass of the [Pentagon] acquisition process."

What started as an earmark appropriation from Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) in the summer of 2001 is now an annual part of the Department of Defense budget.

The first year's appropriation, $5.2 million, was largely to enhance technology in the area of disaster management. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the emphasis was shifted to homeland security and combat. The current year's appropriation is $4.1 million.

Among the several dozen firms that have been helped are ones designing better safety barriers for Navy ships at foreign harbors, improved methods for detecting acoustic waves that could provide an early warning of torpedoes and a better system of detecting individual weapons.

Other grants have gone to university researchers, including one to UC San Diego to work on a hand-held sensor to detect nerve warfare agents. Another grant went to the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command to develop better robots for finding and immobilizing roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the firms to receive CCAT help was Liteye Systems Inc. of Centennial, Colo., which specializes in head- and helmet-mounted displays.

Founded in 2000, Liteye received a $75,000 product development grant from CCAT and has several products in various phases, including one for NASA to enable astronauts to see information on the face guard of their spacesuit helmets.

Another is a clip-on for a combat helmet to enable a soldier or Marine to see data from a global positioning system, thermal imagery or a PDA type of hand-held computer. One innovation being worked on would enable information about enemy locations to be seen in red through an eyepiece.

"Having his threats laid out this way would give him a major advantage," Liteye co-founder and Vice President Ken Guyer said.

So far, the Avaak device has passed several tests conducted by the military at Ft. Polk in Louisiana, Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey and Twentynine Palms in Southern California. More research is underway with a $4-million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has a liking for innovations that think "outside the box."

Like many companies, Avaak would like to break into the public sector. CCAT helped with advice about marketing, partnering and finding investors.

"For a company trying to have a foot in both markets, it was very important," said Andy Paul, the firm's vice president for business development.

CCAT will soon begin accepting proposals for its latest round of research and development funding.

Priority will be given to projects aimed at improving robots and unmanned vehicles that could be used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The war fighter is our client," CCAT program director Tom Sheffer said.




Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology

Purpose: A Defense Department program to help small companies and inventors do business with the agency

Founded: 2001

Locations: San Diego State University and Cal State San Bernardino


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