Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate
The Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) narrowed the field in the U.S. Coast Guard Ready for Rescue Challenge with a Piranha Pool pitch event, March 26-28, 2019, in New London, Connecticut.
The Piranha Pool was the second phase in the three-phase prize competition sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T). The competition seeks enhancements for personal flotation devices that will help make it easier for Coast Guard rescue personnel to find people in the water who are in need of aid.
“Search and rescue is a vital part of the Coast Guard mission,” said Lt. Brock Hashimoto of the Lifesaving and Fire Safety Division (CG-ENG-4), the sponsor’s representative. “We are excited by this opportunity to encourage development of technologies that might enhance the detectability of a person in the water.”
The challenge started in September 2018 with an open call for concepts. Five monetary prize winners and 16 honorable mention winners were selected in November 2018 from more than 103 entries.
In the Piranha Pool, 13 winners and honorable mentions from the first phase of the competition chose to pitch their personal flotation enhancement solution for a chance at a monetary prize to further develop their concepts into working prototypes. Pitch competitions have become a standard way for innovators to get their ideas in front of investors, in part due to the success of the entrepreneurial-themed reality show Shark Tank.
“This format allows ideas to come forward that are unexpected and can be explained by the inventors themselves,” said Judi Connelly, the RDC project manager for the Ready for Rescue Challenge. “Ideas provided in context as conceived by the designers provide the best environment for Q&A and a real understanding of the designers’ concept.”
In the Piranha Pool, the participants pitched to members of the Coast Guard, DHS S&T, personnel with expertise in what it takes to move a product to market, and the project sponsor, the Coast Guard Office of Design and Engineering Standards. The 17 judges scored entries based on a 20-minute pitch and responses to questions. Scores were based on the following criteria:
- Knowledge of subject matter and technology used – 35%
- Prototype development plan and field execution plan – 30%
- Experience and commitment to completion – 25%
- Scalability – 10%
While the viability of the personal flotation enhancement was very important in the judging, scoring also took into account the business side of the venture, including funding sources, competitive market, capacity for manufacturing, and pricing models.
“The very best idea that improves detectability of a person in the water is of limited value if it remains a prototype and never becomes available to the general public,” Connelly said. “In addition to solutions that make it easier to find people in the water, we were looking for a level of commitment from the originator to see the solution through production and to make it commercially available through sale to the general public.”
At the end of the Piranha Pool, five entries were awarded a total of $123,000 to help them further develop their concepts into prototypes. All five will participate in the third and final phase of the challenge, which will be a field exercise this fall. This field exercise will likely involve a Coast Guard response boat and helicopter running standard search patterns in varying light conditions to evaluate the viability of the proposed solutions under realistic conditions. Final evaluations of the entries during the field exercises will be based on:
- Conspicuity in a maritime environment with afloat, airborne and ashore Coast Guard assets – 45%
- Suitability for marine use – 30%
- Ability to provide product improvements – 15%
- Potential and commitment to publicly commercialize – 10%
The prototypes in development involve a variety of detectability enhancements including visual, night vision, thermal, radar frequency, chemical, light patterns and colors. The winners are based in Hawaii, Virginia, Connecticut, California and South Carolina.
This is the second time the Coast Guard has partnered with DHS in a prize competition; the first effort sought options for environmentally friendly mooring.
“DHS uses prize competitions to provide a fresh approach to problem solving, innovation and advancing core mission sets,” said Wendy Chaves, chief of the Coast Guard Office of Research, Development, Test and Evaluation. “The Coast Guard appreciates the opportunity to leverage these authorities and partner with DHS S&T.”