AFRL awards $1M to first Grand Challenge for Biotechnology

  • Published
  • By Gina Marie Giardina
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The first of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s three Biotechnology Grand Challenges was awarded August 14 to Debut Biotechnology, Inc. for its proposal on biosynthesis of monomers for aerospace thermosets.

“The Debut Biotechnology, Inc. proposal provides a path to a scalable, bio- and metal free synthesis of key aerospace polymer precursors, eliminating the reliance on precious metal catalysts and corrosive reagents,” explained Dr. Davide Simone, AFRL’s technology advisor for biosynthesis of monomers for aerospace thermosets and senior research chemist. “Expected benefits for the Air Force include a significant savings in composite aerospace structural material costs and the elimination of oxidation promoting metal catalysts from structural components, extending service lifetimes.”

Debut Biotechnology, Inc. participated in two phases of initial evaluation – a review of their white paper, and then at a virtual pitch day prior to being awarded.

“White papers were submitted via the National Security Innovation Network website, and the review team worked with NSIN and the Wright Brother’s Institute to select three teams to present at a virtual pitch day in July,” said Dr. Jill McQuade, AFRL’s co-biotechnology program manager. “Following the pitches, the review team performed an additional review, discussed and then selected an awardee.”

The review team included Dr. Claretta Sullivan, AFRL’s co-biotechnology program manager; Bob Lee, WBI’s project manager; and Sean Mahoney, AFRL’s chief intrapreneur and the NSIN liaison with ties to AFRL’s Small Business office.

The final selection was approved by the AFRL Biotechnology Community of Practice leadership, and the monetary award came from the Small Business Office Innovation Pipeline funds, said McQuade.

AFRL announced its three Biotechnology Grand Challenges in April in efforts to spearhead innovation among small businesses for the specific needs of the Department of Defense.

The challenges, which were chosen by AFRL’s team of biotechnology experts, seek advancements in the following: biosynthesis of monomers for aerospace thermosets, biosynthesis of high-density endothermic fuels, and human performance-enhancing probiotics.

“When AFRL’s team decided on these challenges, we were looking for ways to make big strides quickly in the area of biotechnology,” said McQuade. “Biotechnology is one of AFRL’s big bets, and is also one of the twelve Office of the Secretary of Defense’s modernization priority area.”

McQuade explained that the AFRL Small Business office put forth $3 million to fund this initiative, which is being divided equally across the challenges. Participants compete in two phases of initial evaluation: a white paper proposal followed by a presentation at a Pitch Day.

The first of three pitch days was held in July, with the following two planned in August and September for the remaining challenges. The pitch days are being held virtually due to social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only will these challenges expedite innovation, but they help small businesses by narrowing down specific needs, McQuade explained. “These challenges can show the broader science and technology community as well as the research and development community how biotechnology can successfully be used as a tool to develop innovative solutions to current hard problems.”  

For more information about the three Biotechnology Grand Challenges, visit