While many defense-related executives say their firms do have competitive advantages and niche markets they serve, many stop short of sharing anything to tip off trade secrets. John Leland, vice president for research at University of Dayton, said the university’s Research Institute has a leadership team which continually improves and refines its “certain competitive advantages over other entities.” “You should understand what your competitive advantages are; if you don’t know what they are you are probably in trouble eventually,” Leland said. Leland suggests any budding defense startup remain patient and know that strategies may take a long time to implement. “Understand what your value proposition is; what makes you different,” Leland said. “I think a lot of people have a misconception that breaking into government-funded R&D is easy. And it’s not. It’s slow.” Leland said it’s a great time for small businesses with unique offerings, including technology solutions, to break in. “Funding for small business innovation research is increasing dramatically,” Leland said. “And the Air Force is changing up a lot of the rules to enable companies that do not have a history … they feel there’s a lot of tech in the commercial world that could benefit the military and want access to that.”
Jeff Graley, president of Mile Two, said his Dayton firm’s areas of focus include cognitive systems engineering, design, software and human machine teaming. “I believe there are benefits to being able to do a lot of things very well which leads to plenty of opportunities,” Graley said. And the hottest areas for defense contracting right now? Graley said he believes those to be artificial intelligence, big data and cloud-based systems.
At Evanhoe & Associates Inc. in Riverside, executives say the hottest areas for defense contracting also include small business, data capture and cyber security, according to Chuck Evanhoe, president, and Bob Fudge, vice president, Public Sector Business. "Technology is always advancing and we are keeping our eye on future developments in artificial intelligence, block chain, and internet of things (IoT), as our solutions work directly with all of these," Evanhoe said. Evanhoe's niche in the market surrounds data — something it's built an international reputation for. "We analyze customer challenges and solve them with IT solutions that make your data actionable," Evanhoe said, including IT, RFID/Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC), and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions. "Our current efforts range from redesigning U.S. Marine Corps Item Data systems and processes; tracking everything from laptops at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office to Abrams tanks for the US Army; and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict U.S. Air Force aircraft parts shortages."
Lea Culver, president and CEO of Creek Technologies in Beavercreek, said his firm's niche in the market was first established by its core skill set of high-quality IT services. "From that baseline capability, we’ve expanded into educational support services and Homeland Security solutions, and we’re now leveraging all three strengths to move into adjacent federal markets," Culver said. Culver said he believes a successful workforce helps to drive future growth and new contracts. When quality and innovation are high, he says, solutions and performance to benefit the clients are also higher. "Our success begins with our employees’ subject matter expertise, which is why workforce development is our paramount concern," Culver said. "That’s our definition of organic growth: grow the workforce, grow the portfolio." Culver's advice for an IT or defense startup would be: to possess some kind of intellectual property that will make it stand out in a competitive and rapidly changing market; lower pricing, if you can afford to; and hire subject-matter experts.