A pilot scans the screen on his helmet-mounted display, monitoring air speed and information about his ground target. Then in a quick turn and ascent, he pushes the plane through the flickering gloom of a stratus layer up to a brightly lit flight path above the clouds. For intermittent moments, his helmet-mounted display screen washes out in the changing light conditions. A thousand miles away outside a remote desert village, a special ops team storms a warehouse where hostages are being held, bursting from glaring daylight into a dark, windowless building. Do they waste precious seconds swapping sunglasses for clear ballistic eyewear before they enter?


The Air Force's concern about reliable visibility of helmet-mounted displays led to a revolutionary light-attenuating liquid crystal technology that is working its way into flight helmet visors as well as combat eyewear for on-the-ground warfighters. In 1997, Bahman Taheri was on the faculty at Kent State University's renowned Liquid Crystal Institute (LCI) when he learned that the Air Force was looking for solutions to their helmet-mounted display visibility issues — solutions that had been stubbornly elusive.

"They wanted a product, not more research," Taheri says. That meant the Air Force needed to move beyond the academic realm and work with a company that could actually develop and manufacture a technology. Taheri was intrigued, challenged, and confident he could help. With backing from the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, he and two colleagues from LCI, Tamas Kosa and Peter Palffy-Muhoray, co-founded AlphaMicron, Inc.
AlphaMicron's tint is just one of many successful innovations enabled by the U.S. Air Force's SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.

On the TV show Shark Tank, prospective entrepreneurs receive a chance to turn dreams of a successful business into reality by presenting their ideas to investors in hopes of receiving financial support.

In a way, the Air Force SBIR/STTR Program office is a 'Shark Tank' of sorts for the Air Force.

The SBIR program was established by congress in 1982, with the idea to set aside a substantial amount of research and development money to be focused on small businesses.

"The idea behind it was to look for problems within organizations where creative, innovative, leading-edge solutions could solve a problem not only quickly, but could also then spark the economy by nurturing a small business to grow and become a viable U.S. national asset," said David Shahady, director of the Air Force SBIR/STTR program.

Shahady touts a recent SBIR program success story about a small business called MMA Design LLC, of Boulder, Colorado. A recipient of the 2016 SBIR Tibbetts Award, the company has developed several new technologies through the SBIR program to help alleviate the growing problem of space junk in orbit around the Earth. MMA Design employees created a virtual chute that opens up behind a satellite in order to slow and change the orbit of the satellite after it's no longer useful, allowing it to fall and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere. They also designed a steerable solar panel array that allows smaller-class satellites to capture more power, allowing them to be used for longer missions, and then provides operators the ability to help steer the craft down into the atmosphere to get it out of orbit.

"It's exciting to be the front-end investor that puts money into these small companies and see these folks mature their businesses," Shahady said. "MMA Design started with a small number of people and now they have an increasing number of employees, so you're not only solving an Air Force problem, but you're also helping to build the national economy."

Each year, federal agencies which are part of SBIR publish announcements of their topics or problems to be solved and small businesses can submit proposals for consideration.

This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.