Ben: Everybody, welcome. We are really pleased to be joined here today by Gabe Mounce, who is the Director of the Outreach and Technology Engagement Office for the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL -- https://www.afrl.af.mil/) in New Mexico, and is also dual-hatted as the Deputy Director of SpaceWERX (https://spacewerx.us/). So, I want to hear more about how that works to do what are definitely two full-time-sounding jobs in one person. So, I'm sure you do it well, Gabe. Gabe is a longtime acquaintance of FedTech and has been a good partner throughout the years through some of our programs. I'm just really excited to have a conversation today.
Gabe, we got to catch up – obviously – a few weeks ago when we were visiting New Mexico; FedTech is just really excited to be in New Mexico. We've made a couple of announcements; we're opening an office in Albuquerque, and starting to staff up. I just was wondering, to pick up a little bit of what we talked about, what do you see happening? New Mexico has changed a lot in the last 10 years. What do you see happening from an economic standpoint? What do you see happening from an entrepreneurship standpoint? I'm just interested to hear your thoughts.
Gabe: So, I've been in New Mexico for a while. I was born and raised here in the state. I went on active duty for a while with the Air Force, and then landed back here in Albuquerque – as it were – where I've been working ever since in the Air Force Research Lab. Just some quick context, the Air Force Research Lab is the science and technology arm of the Department of the Air Force, because that department now oversees the two services: Air Force (https://www.af.mil/) and now the Space Force (https://www.spaceforce.mil/). In that role, for a while I was doing some of the basic R&D work that goes on in the lab related to space, electronics, and some of the parts that go into spacecraft. Then, in the last several years, probably the last five or six years, working in what we would call an economic development and outreach function for the state. What I've seen over that period of time, and then in just my experience, is in New Mexico, first and foremost, we have had a long history in space, right? We are pretty famous for the Goddard experiments that were done by Robert Goddard back in the day in Roswell, New Mexico – the early rocketry experiments that he did.
Ben: Just for the folks that aren't familiar, what were those experiments?
Gabe: Robert Goddard was one of the very early pioneers of rocket propulsion, right? The whole concept of rocketry to try to launch and get an object into space. So, he did a lot of that work in New Mexico, down in the southern part of the state – where I'm from. Roswell, New Mexico – in particular – is where he was located. From that point on, just the history that, New Mexico has had an attachment to the Department of Defense, some of the work bled into the Department of Defense work that has long been here. That's sort of that history.
Then, of course, this is not necessarily part of the history, but the side I always think is funny is a connection of this whole weird alien culture that's springing up around Roswell and the whole thing. Kinda weird they were in the same place.
But, we've had a long history. The state has had a long history related to the federal government. We've got three Air Force bases. We've got an Army base down in White Sands, New Mexico. Where I work – the Air Force Research Lab – is actually on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque; that base has many mission partners that are here, DoD mission partners. In fact, I've heard the commander talk about the base. The commander, when you see him talk in public, sometimes he'll say, "There's a hundred mission partners on Kirtland Air Force Base," which is a lot. If you've ever been on a military base, many of the bases are really assigned a particular mission and there's maybe a few units assigned to that mission. Kirtland has got a ton of mission partners across the DoD front. The most well-known tenant is Sandia National Labs. And I think the other well-known attribute about New Mexico, when it comes to science and technology and the federal sector, is the two big national labs that are in state. Sandia, on the base here at Kirtland in Albuquerque; and Los Alamos, up the street from me and in Los Alamos, right? Los Alamos National Lab.
So there's always been a history of science and tech through that federal sector, especially as that science and tech relate to space research and the whole space domain – a long history between all those organizations working on that.
Ben: It is just interesting to see how much – you mentioned that on the Air Force Base, but just in general – how much technical R&D, technology development is being done. I think we often debate around the FedTech office, "What are the next big venture ecosystems," right? If you think about Boulder, Denver, Austin, of course, the Bay Area, LA, Boston, Massachusetts, the word is kind of already out as far as those places, right? So, I get interested in Albuquerque as potentially next up on that list of great places to come and build a company. We get really excited just about some of the assets that are in the state; you mentioned the National Labs – but places like AFRL – where you just have a really rich opportunity to work with the government to accelerate businesses.
I know you've done just an exceptional amount of work in terms of building the Albuquerque innovation scene, like funding Q Station (https://www.qstation.tech/). I'm interested to hear more about that. What's your take on where we are in the journey, in terms of building Albuquerque into the next great venture city?
Gabe: Yeah, great question. This is the part I really love discussing; I become very passionate about using what small measure I have access to and influence on – from the federal government's perspective – to enable our state to get after and grow its economic base, as it were. That includes the workforce piece of it, as well.
Getting back to the earlier question: to me how this relates is the main industries here in the state have long been agriculture; and the oil and gas industry is probably one of the biggest industries here. Then, some other adjacent industries that are super interesting to me – maybe not to people in the tech sector – but we have a burgeoning entertainment industry, related to the movies.
Ben: Huge movies getting shot in New Mexico.
Gabe: Now there is! There's been a concerted effort by the state government leadership to attract that industry to the state as a potential way to bolster the economy, which has been working pretty well so far. Then, you have in the mix this federal sector itself that's doing a lot of the science and tech for national security that – in a sense – has dovetailed with that.
So, I want to make sure the listeners understand the sector here is not necessarily new, when it comes to an economic development function. There's these other interesting sectors that already existed that were pretty robust. I think what's newer is the fact that the commercial space sector is growing so fast internationally because of a lot of the recent technology developments by the likes of these billionaires who make access to space so much cheaper. There's been a long history of space technology research in the state that has – in a sense – been translated into the commercial sector here. It wasn't until this commercial sector got so hot that the transition opportunity has grown significantly. It is sort of the sweet spot that me and my team have entered into to try to help create an opportunity to transition and create the intersection between what we care about in the mission set from the national security space side – and now in particular, the Space Force side – and what's happening in that commercial sector.
What I have long been doing – and I'm not the only one – A lot of us in the region, a lot of us in the state have been driving the fact and trying to help our commercial partners. Our private sector partners realize opportunities in this now new commercial space sector, as it dovetails with what we care about in the national security space. The way I see it, when it comes to the Space Force and where the Space Force is actually in existence – the main part of Space Force – we can talk a little bit more about why the Space Force was created, but a large part of the Space Force leadership and headquarters is centered in Colorado Springs, which is right up the road from us here in Albuquerque about five and a half hour drive.
Ben: That's it? Gabe, for the East Coasters on, they'll listen to this and don't think that’s right up the road.
Gabe: Yeah, for those of us in the West, that's a short drive between locales, it's a hop. And then of course, the major part of the Air Force that acquires all the systems and develops all the systems for the purpose of national security is in Los Angeles. And with the standard with the Space Force that group is now sort of renamed as the Space Systems Command. And then we here in Albuquerque, right, we have the Air Force Research Lab, that is where I work that's got a whole group of space people that are now, you know, long, long career Air Force, civil servants and military – we're doing that basic science and tech now and have been, in a sense, blessed as Space Force individuals.
So, we're all now Space Force. I'm a Space Force civil servant. We're doing our basic science and tech here in Albuquerque, at Kirtland. And right adjacent to us is another component of Space Force, called the Space Rapid Capabilities Office. So there's this sort of R&D, science and tech function here in Albuquerque, such that the big three nodes for the Space Force are Colorado Springs, Los Angeles and Albuquerque. And so what I'm doing – what I'm exploring via the government apparatus that I get to have influence over – is how do we enable our element of the federal government to intersect with this commercial sector? And thereby, you know, there seems to be a natural pathway for growth of the private sector here, when it comes to commercial space, because of the proximity to us doing the federal work in Albuquerque, And thereby, that's why I think there's this new research, maybe even resurgence of growth in the space sector in particular, as an economic driver in the state of New Mexico and in the city of Albuquerque.
Ben: Well, Gabe, even backing up a little bit. I always say we have to sort of appeal to the folks you know, that listen to this podcast that may not be highly technical, or, you know, may not be DOD folks – mainly my mom, our number one listener of this podcast.
So, if we were to just even back up a little bit, I mean, maybe talk a little bit about space, right? Why is space so important? Now, I think people hear a lot more about it, you know, that may not be in the Defense Department, you hear more news stories, you see things like Space Force getting created, like maybe just kind of, to somebody that doesn't live in the world as much describe a little bit about why space?
Gabe: Yeah, so obviously, from a national security perspective, the apparatus that the domain of space has always been a domain that has also been utilized for national security purposes, right. You know, since the early days of NASA and the 60s and even the 50s, when, you know, this new domain was being explored, it always had an element that needed to be used and could be used for the purposes of national security. And for a long time, a lot of that – not everything – but a lot of that responsibility fell to the Air Force. And so there’s the national security apparatus, which includes the even the intelligence agencies, the services, Air Force, Army, Navy, all of the all of the services, have long use that domain, to essentially enable the mission sets that they run, in a sense in a terrestrial sense, really, for for the purposes of national security of the nation.
What's happened recently, and partly what went into the calculus to stand up the Space Force, was the fact that this new private sector was growing so fast. Because of this, this new access to space that that has been driven, like I said, by, you know, the billionaires, the likes of Blue Origin, SpaceX, the folks like that, right? That, that change, that that pivotal change and access to space, has made it so much more cheap, to get to space, that you now see the private sector, the entrepreneurial sector really rushing in, to take advantage of that access to see what new business can be derived from using this domain, over and above what what's ever been whatever has been done before.
So really, up to this point, the domain of space and the use of space as a domain, has really only been in the province of nation states, right the nations that the expense was so immense, that really it was only in the domain of nation states to exploit. And then, of course, a lot of that has a lot of that nation state exploitation was done, or at least in the US a good portion under and for national security purpose. So the national security apparatus would fund a lot of that work and help us get, you know, help the nation get into that domain. So, now that we have this cheaper access, what's happened is a lot of players now are starting to get into operating in space, almost independent of any of the nation state activities from a governmental perspective, and this is happening on the international front.
So, all that to say is context. If you hear Space Force leaders talk now what they often talk about is the fact that this Access accesses got so much cheaper, that so many more things, more entities are putting objects into space, that there is a lot of concern about the fact that it's getting very congested and space, especially in the low Earth orbit regime, which is the regime that's easiest to get to where most of these private companies are putting their assets is becoming very congested. Which makes those of us doing the national security mission, there's a little concern that how are we now going to be able to also continue to use that domain if there's so much congestion, and even now discussion about how we facilitate as a national security apparatus, or even a federal apparatus? How do we facilitate the safe use of the domain, the continued spirit safe use of domain by this new kind of economic sector.
So, that was one of the key things that went into the calculus to stand up Space Force. The other thing is, this commercial market is an international commercial commercial market now. And so, essentially, anybody who couldn't afford it can get into into the space domain, maybe even people who, you know, maybe even nation states who previously weren't able to get that access now have some level access. And so the other concern is it's becoming we we predict going, it could be a domain that is contested. So you hear from from leaders a lot. It's a contested now, and congested domain. And those two things heavily factored into why the US government decided to set up a separate service that was dedicated to operating within that domain and maintaining that domain for the peaceful use of, you know, the International sector. And so they decided to carve out the new US Space Force out of the US Air Force.
Ben: Okay, that's different than I thought there was a connectivity to the Netflix show.... Space Force.
Gabe: Yeah, which one influenced which? (laughs)
Ben: Well, I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it is fascinating to see just how the price, you know, per kilogram right of launch has dropped so much. We a few weeks ago, interviewed one of our companies that came through an army accelerator we run as I know, if you've heard a longshot space, has, you know, a giant world war two era gun design, like a huge cannon that they're going to launch sort of non human payloads into space, right, and they think they can actually drop, you know, even the current rocket based launch, you know, orders of magnitude. So fun, fun interview, you know, that just to hear about that tech. And it kind of illustrates, I mean, there is just, you know, the commercial invention, that is now, you know, in some ways, kind of leading elements of kind of government, I know, you guys have been keenly aware of this and starting, you know, places like, like the new space initiative, which which, by the way, I thought was really cool to get to see. So, for those you that weren't at the event -- Gabe was introducing Senator Heinrich, so pretty neat to see him interacting with a US senator. And, yeah, maybe talk a little bit about that. I mean, how have you kind of designed the ecosystems that you have access and control over, you know, things like new space to really facilitate kind of that public private sharing of information and diffusion of innovation? Yeah, great,
Gabe: Great question. And, yeah, thanks for taking taking us down this line reason for me because it's something I am pretty passionate about here. I'm lucky enough to be in a position where I oversee the outreach office, what we call a technology outreach office for the Air Force Research Lab here in New Mexico. And at the core, what that constitutes for us is how do we take some of this innovation that we create inside this federal lab called the Air Force Research Lab and translate that to the commercial market. And so there's this impedance match, as it were, that I that my office kind of works on to help translate this technology into the commercial market. But we're also chartered to look at what's happening in the commercial market and figure out is there a way to translate that into what I would call the metaphor inside the fence into our mission sets? Is their mission fit for the technology that's now occurring out in the commercial sector? And because that office serves this part of the Air Force Research Lab that's with space, there was just a perfect storm, if you will, this perfect alignment of how the commercial sector has grown. What the national government wanted to do with the federal government wanted to do in space to allow us to basically experiment with how can I use sort of the apparatus that I get to oversee to scout for technology that's happening now in this commercial sector, and see if there's an alignment to the mission sets that we have now within the Space Force? And in doing so, then also understanding how do you enable the commercial sector to be able to work in close proximity and these public private partnerships, to those of us doing the work within the federal government. And that's happening, not just here in New Mexico, but in Colorado and LA, a lot of places. But I see a lot of the hotbed in those three, three locales. So we we had, we have some of my office has some unique authorities that allowed us to experiment with, for instance, the use of the startup accelerator model where we not only were trying to scout for technology, but we could use the The Lean Startup model, that kind of three month boot camp that you see in a lot of these startup accelerators out in the wild use that model to enable us to accelerate companies, but kind of accelerate them toward what would be a mission fit for their technology, not necessarily trying to turn them into the next, you know, federal vendor, although that is definitely an outcome. But it also just to understand how do we work with this growing tech market early on while it's so early. And then when it gets, you know, when it grows, when some of these companies become the next SpaceX because we've worked with them in their early stages, it's a lot easier for the company and us as a government to have that conversation later about how do we utilize their capabilities once they're more mature. So these programs were built, one of them the Hyperspace Challenge (https://hyperspacechallenge.com/) that we run here in New Mexico, one of these kinds of startup accelerator like programs to help us find a mission fit. And then that spawned a number of other programs that we ran out of my office here, both in New Mexico and Colorado and in LA, to understand how to better fuse the connection between the commercial sector and what we want to get after in space. And the side benefit for us here locally is now there's a lot of attention on what's happening in New Mexico, because of the collaboration with the Space Force element that's here, here in the state.
Ben: How is it all going? I mean, what kind of companies are you seeing kind of come through the programs -- any kind of highlights that you're really proud of?
Gabe: Yeah, there's almost too many to name honestly. And really, that's an artifact of, there's just a lot of really great innovation happening now in the commercial sector, there's a lot of new things that just, you know, the entrepreneur, the entrepreneurial community, right. The beautiful thing about that ecosystem and community is you have people who are innovative thinking of new things to do -- trying that -- and then that just builds on itself to generate more innovation. So we, one of -- I think one of the latest things -- I'll identify, and it's a neat story for us here in New Mexico because of the local nature of it. One of the companies here in the state called RS21, they are a spin out of Sandia National Labs, basically a data analytics company, big data analytics company, mainly focused on doing data analytics for the energy sector. And, you know, coming out of Sandia, a Department of Energy National Lab, right, that would make sense. They're focused on the energy sector. But they were also focused -- one of the industry sectors I failed to mention that's pretty robust here in the state is biotech, biotech and the medical domain. So this company was doing a lot of that kind of data analytics, energy sector and in bio, and one of their cool algorithms had to do with prediction of the onset of certain types of cancer based on the factors that go into health of an individual and those early signs that might, if used correctly, in a data analytics fashion, with this higher level of computation could help predict perhaps what the onset of the cancer would be. Just, you know, just to help with oncology therapy, right? Through our hyperspace challenge, one of the cohorts that we ran was just looking at a number of different tech sectors trying to understand can we map different things to, for instance, the health and wellness of satellites. One of the mission needs for anybody, quite frankly, that runs that operates objects in space satellites and space is just understanding what is no kidding the status and health of your spacecraft. Something that everybody does that to operate spacecraft, but it's not always the easiest thing to do, because you're essentially operating a remote object that you don't have ready access to. And so you're you're completely reliant upon the telemetry and other command control things for that asset. And it's just, it's just a hard problem.
Ben: Predicting the failure rate is immensely challenging when you're not going to have that satellite working anymore, right, it could be years, it could be months, and the problem was interesting, since they went from cancer prediction to satellites. Pretty, pretty neat.
Gabe: Yeah, so that was one of the success stories is now we have this company who was now applying their oncology algorithm, to satellite technology to spacecraft, which then, you know, helped the Space Force The Space Force now, through the space work super center process has pulled them in to their mission set. And now, you know, running through the early prototypes about how that technology can be used within the Space Force. And then also for the company created a whole new space line of business that they had not previously considered. So, just a success story all around for us here locally in the community. But, that's just one example of many that we've seen.
Ben: That's cool, Gabe. Yeah, I love it and then that's kind of hitting all of the parts of, you know, a startup that we get excited about at FedTech. Right, you have the spin off that was able to transition a technology into a new domain, check, check, check, and then leverage SBIR to be successful. So, that's really cool. I guess, you know, shifting gears just a little bit. You know, I've always been impressed, you guys at the Air Force, in general, and especially in Albuquerque, have just always done such a good job supporting founders, you know, in being -- I always love there's kind of this wide angle view that you take, right, where hey, we're going to open up, you know, a big shared workspace, like a Q Station, we're going to have the Air Force, you know, Air Force will be the anchor investor, but we're going to have it benefit the community and benefit kind of entrepreneurs, you know, writ large, irrespective of kind of the immediate payback, you know, to the Air Force. And I've always, I've always liked that a lot. And I'm just curious, if you could talk a little bit about how you sort of have that attitude around, you know, hey, let's make entrepreneurs successful, and in time that will benefit the mission. And then just any advice you have, you know, for entrepreneurs that maybe have not interacted with the Air Force, like, what should they be thinking about?
Gabe: Yeah. So yeah, I appreciate that, and I'll back up even a little bit and give background to the ethos that we've tried to develop out of our office, which is, you know, we really are trying to be a partner, right, a partner, federal government partner, that is as collaborative as possible with what's happening in the commercial sector -- because we definitely want to understand how better to leverage and work with the commercial sector in this kind of new this whole new domain and space and how it's growing. And so we've kind of taken the attitude of how can we be as hospitable to the private sector as possible -- and through some of our early programs, what we discovered is just having the interaction with us making it easier to have the interaction was significant. So we, you know, we decided to establish this off base presence just to make it easier for us to interact with the commercial sector.
Ben: For those of you that haven't driven onto an Air Force Base, without an invitation, you'll see why that's important. If you ever try it, yeah, it's not easy to get on an Air Force Base.
Gabe: Yeah, we decided to take the opposite approach, which is, those of us doing this work and kind of the outreach side, we decided to leave the base go off outside the base, and set up sort of a front door, as it were, to have this interaction. So the facility you're talking about our cue station is meant to be sort of that front door, that place where we interact. But we also enable it to be a place where the tech sector itself can convene with the government, with the other government players that are here, and really just provide some kind of unstructured collision opportunities through this big facility that we run in Albuquerque. So that was part of the thinking was offering that helps us in the long run, because we're forming relationships with the commercial sector that we desperately need, if we're going to get after some of our mission sets. I'm not sure if I addressed the last part of your question, if you don't mind that might be helpful then.
Ben: Oh, yeah. Well, and even just to build on that -- when I think about giving entrepreneurs advice, you know, it's go out and kind of have those serendipitous interactions, right. So even, show up to a place like a Q Station that's, you know, open and has a lot of events that you can go and interact in. As an entrepreneur, right, you might just bump into a Gabe Mounce, who can give you that initial step of how do you win, you know, an Air Force SBIR? How do you get funded? Right? It's just to me -- and this is why I'm just so happy to see just in a general sense, let's get back to doing in-person stuff again, right? I mean, this was harder, I think, to try to do this over zoom. But you know, we always tell our entrepreneurs, just put yourself in a situation where good things can happen, you're going to be surprised, you know, but it doesn't have to happen if you're, you know, sitting in your living room, or if you're sitting, you know, sitting at your workbench necessarily all the time. But I mean, what do you think? I mean, how would you if you were going to, you know, again, be sitting down, you know, just counseling kind of a first time entrepreneur, maybe that has a good space technology? What would you tell them? How do you leverage, you know, the best of the Air Force the best of New Mexico to grow a company?
Gabe: Yeah, I guess first and foremost, young companies are looking for business lines, right, they're looking for ways to ultimately sell their product or service. So they have a product or service idea, maybe they've already got the real product or service MVP prototypes, you know, some kind of early thing and they're looking for a fit. One way or one piece of advice is definitely do your due diligence on, you know, that commercial side. And I think the way the current thinking is amongst Air Force Space Force innovation offices like ours is, we're looking to help you as best we can grow your commercial market, because that's, that's the way our US capitalist system works. We care about companies growing in the normal sense of that commercial market. Because once you become robust in that regard, we know that you have multiple ways that you can continue your business, in addition to perhaps the government being a customer. But while you're going through that exploration process, for instance, working through offices, like are Q Station, there's many others within the federal government -- Ben, I think you'd know many of them that entrepreneurs can go to, to interface with those individuals like me, who were experts at understanding where there are opportunities, what those kinds of specific government pathways are, both to understand what I call the mission fit of your product or service -- and then also, how do you utilize some of these mechanisms to ultimately get funding from the government to help with your idea. We often use cyber sitter as the baseline starting point for small businesses, because that is, no kidding, the federal government's way to onboard companies in that early stage and understand how the fit is part of what I do now.
Ben: Gabe, even what's like kind of the tweet size, just for those that haven't heard, you know, of SBIR, it's Small Business Innovation Research program. What's the tweet size, just explanation for what that is, and why it's special.
Gabe: Yeah, I mean, SBIR is a congressional mandated program that all federal government agencies run, they take a percentage, small percentage of the federal budget given to each agency to go through this small business innovative research grant and contracting opportunity to ultimately help the industrial base right to grow new companies. So, it's specifically a set aside for small companies, to enable them to leverage this funding to grow their business.
Ben: For those you that are listening that, you know, just to give you some sense of SBIR, you know, started companies like like Symantec, and iRobot, you know, initially had SBIR funding, you know, just a huge driver of innovation. A lot of great technical companies get their start through this program -- unfortunately, not as well known as it should be.
Gabe: Yeah, I mean, there's probably a lot more publicity that should be done across the federal government on this front. But I know for the Department of the Air Force now, the main major outfit that runs that is a group called AFWERX (https://www.afwerx.af.mil/). And then underneath that is a group that I also happen to be involved with called SpaceWERX (https://spacewerx.us/), which essentially owns and operates that process, that small business funding process -- and so what the Department of the Air Force has tried to do is make it a little easier for us as the government to utilize that and make it easier for the commercial side small companies to access that pipeline, if you will, in order to explore what I call, you know, this mission fit scenario. So one of the best ways for companies that are listening that might want to get involved is to go to the AFWERX website and explore how that mechanism works. They've got some pretty good content there to take people through that process. And then SpaceWERX also.
Ben: Just to let the audience know, we will put the websites, we'll put them in the podcast notes for those listening.