September 03, 2012
Anthony L. Velocci, Jr.
From new forms of massively parallel computing to the next generation of mini-satellites, countless innovations critical to future aerospace and defense systems will emerge not from the multibillion-dollar prime contractors, but from small technology companies worldwide.
These prototypically entrepreneurial enterprises number in the thousands and represent an astounding array of engineering disciplines. Many of them are comparatively miniscule, operating in the shadows of the major systems integrators, with less than $10 million in revenue and a staff of 20-30. Others are much larger, with hundreds of employees and several hundred million in revenues.
Common to all are a wealth of specialized skills, cutting-edge intellectual property, highly educated workforces, relationships with government officials and large aerospace customers, and in many cases, valuable security clearances.
Innovation is about change and moving forward, and all of these companies have a passion for improving upon, or changing the status quo—whether it is creating something that performs better and offers lower life-cycle costs, or carving out an entirely new market. Some are led by individuals with a vision for disruptive change; most are run by inspired leaders focused mainly on incremental but significant advances to existing products and processes.
“Small companies are an incredibly rich source of innovation,” says Charles W. Wessner, director of Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the National Academy of Sciences. “That is where big technology companies come from, and that is where the big companies go for innovative ideas.”
It is not as though the giants are not innovating, observes Tony Tether, former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), one of the most prolific wellsprings of innovation anywhere on the planet. “They most certainly are. But given a choice between funding a Boeing or a small entrepreneurial supplier, I would be inclined to fund the small company, because they must transition the technology [to market] in order to survive. That is a powerful incentive.”
It is indeed, and aerospace has the good fortune to be populated with myriad such companies keenly aware of that imperative, each one as different in their DNA as the individuals who comprise their brain trusts. They can be found across the industry, persevering to one degree or another against tremendous challenges to sustain profitable growth.