AFMC Command News

Project Vanguard reinforces defense capabilities with investor capital

  • Published
  • By Kristen Dennis

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) —Project Vanguard, a program delivered by the AFWERX Capital Initiatives division, represents that opportunity for warfighter and industry teaming, helping to buy down risk of the government customer's acquisition through the intervention of private capital.

American capital markets – valued at more than $50 trillion, according to Goldman Sachs – represent a strategic advantage in our ability to identify, develop and field new capabilities. However, new technologies often require long-term financing to bridge the gap between laboratory and full-scale production.

In relation to industry and national security counterparts, Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in a recent interview with Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force commander, that we need to have a more formalized industry engagement strategy to prepare for Great Power Competition.

“Both from our traditional defense suppliers as well as a lot of new entrants that have been with us less time, there’s enormous intellectual capital there,” Kendall said. “We want the industry working with us to help solve our problems. It goes back to extreme teaming. It has to be done with the recognition that industry does have an incentive to make money; that’s what corporations do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about what we’re trying to do. They have tremendous technological talent. We need to bring all that together to help us make the best decisions and solutions.”

AFWERX, the Department of the Air Force’s innovation arm and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory, awards $1.3 billion, or approximately 60% of all Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer dollars authorized annually by Congress, working across a complex ecosystem of business, investment, government and academia to accelerate U.S. technology advancement.

During his keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference in March 2024, Col. Elliott Leigh, AFWERX director and chief commercialization officer for the Department of the Air Force, noted that the department’s transition to an enterprise focused on Great Power Competition will require a pipeline of cutting-edge technologies from startups and military personnel to AFWERX.

While it’s critical to innovate, Leigh added that to have the greatest impact, the United States also needs to field technologies first, before its adversaries do.

“We need to quickly move [technologies] and get them into the hands of somebody who can do something with them,” Leigh said. “That gives [warfighters] an advantage – what I like to think of as an unfair advantage over their adversaries in a wartime environment.”

Project Vanguard is uniquely partnered with the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to help overcome those challenges for all involved. NSIN/DIU is a Department of Defense agency that unites defense, academic and entrepreneurial contacts to solve U.S. national security problems.

Due to resource or connection challenges, small businesses often find it difficult to proceed from a prototype project to a full production contract with a government or outside investor. AFWERX Project Vanguard aims to connect these strategic opportunities with additional funding resources.

Through the partnership between Project Vanguard and NSIN/DIU, small businesses receive valuable market insight and connections with private and government investors. This fosters the long-term viability of small business projects and technologies. Project Vanguard is focused on the growth of such projects and increasing the probability of companies receiving contracts with government or outside investors. Companies with a Phase II or higher SBIR/STTR funding history are eligible for participation in Project Vanguard and collaboration with NSIN/DIU.

The Department of the Air Force partners working with Project Vanguard have access to transition-ready companies, and a streamlined process for collaboration. Through the AFWERX Tactical Funding Increase (STRATFI/TACFI) program, Project Vanguard facilitates matched funds and an acquisition plan that make the projects more likely to succeed. STRATFI/TACFI funding and the cultivated growth of these projects alleviate investment risk and reduce costs, which bolsters a small business’s likelihood of scalability into commercial and military markets.

“Our ability to connect the innovation ecosystem is paramount to transitioning critical technologies,” Leigh said. “Project Vanguard will facilitate these connections and help small businesses navigate our complex environment.”

Project Vanguard was launched in April at Innovate to Accelerate (I2A) Expo Day, in El Segundo, California. The Expo Day was the capstone presentation event for SpaceWERX’s recent Tactically Responsive Space cohort. More than 50% of the cohort companies expressed interest in funding and introductions to investors. Eleven of these companies are now fundraising as a result of their Project Vanguard connections at I2A.

Following the launch success with SpaceWERX at I2A Expo Day, Project Vanguard continues to support Guardians through current pilots with SpaceWERX Phase II portfolio companies, and recently availed the program to existing SpaceWERX STRATFI/TACFI winners.

“Next, the program will scale to Phase II eligible companies in anticipation of future STRATFI/TACFI solicitations,” said Helena Krusec, Project Vanguard program manager. For more information, click here.

About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit

As the innovation arm of the DAF and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFWERX brings cutting-edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. AFWERX employs approximately 370 military, civilian and contractor personnel at six hubs and sites executing an annual $1.4 billion budget. Since 2019, AFWERX has executed 6,100 new contracts worth more than $4 billion to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base and drive faster technology transition to operational capability. For more information, visit