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The Army is looking for a few good ideas. Can NC businesses supply them?

State leaders are quietly prodding small businesses across North Carolina to enter a U.S. Army competition that's supposed to find some potentially "novel technology solutions" to the Army's primary modernization needs.

The Army Expeditionary Technology Search program — xTechSearch for short — asks entrants to submit a 1,000-word paper by July 11 that explains how their idea can contribute to the service's desire to improve its combat hardware, training and computer networks.

That's the opening step in a four-stage competition where the winner will eventually supply the Army "proof of concept" and receive $331,000 in cash prizes along the way. It'll also bring the opportunity to collaborate with Army research labs, and perhaps a technology licensing deal.

The push to encourage North Carolina entrants comes from the N.C. Defense Technology Transition Office, an arm of the N.C. Military Business Center that, like its parent organization, exists to promote the development of a defense-industry sector in the state.

Both see the competition as "an easy, inexpensive way for innovators to get their ideas" to the Army and secure funding for their development, said Scott Dorney, executive director of the N.C. Military Business Center.

He added that there are companies working in many of the fields relevant to the Army's modernization program, including vehicles, unmanned systems, cybersecurity, electronics and aviation. The Defense Technology Transition Office, also known as DEFTECH, has contacted the ones it knows about, and officials are also hoping for some help from the UNC system in reaching other start-ups.

"We in North Carolina do not wait around for opportunities to grow the defense economy," Dorney said. "We proactively pursue opportunities that will grow technology transition, defense contracting and the military economy in our state."

The Army launched the competition earlier this month, and as it happens tied it to the same six modernization priorities it's setting up a new headquarters, Army Futures Command, to orchestrate work on.

Raleigh's among the five cities vying for a chance to host the new headquarters, the others being Boston, Austin, Minneapolis and Philadelphia. Army leaders are supposed to select one of them soon.

People involved in the state's end of the recruitment downplay the possibility that promoting the xTechSearch might influence the Army's selection of a headquarters city, as the site search is already well along toward its completion. But when pressed, they'll concede that they do think it helps that the state's shown a commitment to growing its defense sector.

The N.C. General Assembly created the Military Business Center in 2005, and the center in turn launched DEFTECH in 2016, about the time that defense officials in former President Barack Obama's administration ramped up efforts to find and capitalize on emerging technologies in the commercial sector.

"The state of North Carolina’s early engagement — by standing up DEFTECH quickly — put businesses in our state in a unique position to engage in these initiatives, and was not unnoticed by" the U.S. Department of Defense, Dorney said.

The Army's modernization program seeks to develop new long-range artillery systems and missiles, develop new vehicles to supplant iconic Cold War-era weapons systems like the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, develop new types of "vertical lift" aircraft, beef up anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses and upgrade computer networks.

There are businesses across the state "that can contribute significant R&D across all of the Army’s modernization priorities," Dorney said. "While [they] may not do final assembly of major combat systems, we undoubtedly provide components and products for systems across the modernization priorities."

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg
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