To the man on the street, the word commercialize is just another noun-turned-verb by corporate America, shorthand for “making something profitable.” To the venture capitalist, however, commercialize is the magic wand every entrepreneur must wave into his pitch—and then make happen.
For ViaSat, a satellite communications company in California, this message is its mantra. “We give a high priority to projects that have a production tail or a licensing element,” says Bill Jensen, vice president of government contracts and strategic relations. “Every contract is aimed at developing products to manufacture,” confirms the company’s official history. Small wonder, then, those three years after its founding, ViaSat sought funding from the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. Recalls Jensen: “The SBIR approach and phases focused on commercialization and production. This matched our corporate strategy very closely.”
The company’s first SBIR contract came from the Navy, which wanted software that would simulate a battlefield and allow aircraft to test their equipment without ever leaving a hanger. “This was a huge boost early in our history,” says Jensen. Indeed, that boost allowed ViaSat to hone its Communication Environment Simulator so that it could test advanced aircraft like the F-22 and joint strike fighter. During Desert Storm and Kosovo, CES helped improve the avionic performance of both the Navy and Air Force. “Just last week,” Jensen adds, “we were negotiating the third joint strike fighter simulator with Lockheed Martin.” A grant won twenty-two years ago continues to bear fruit today: $60 million dollars’ worth of it.
A couple of years after the CES contract, ViaSat won another SBIR award—its most successful one ever—from the Air Force. The charge: to develop five-kilohertz equipment that enables fast, secure, and efficient communications. Again, the company’s commercialization focus proved successful. Today, “This modem is used in virtually every piece of military equipment out there—planes, ships, and manpacks,” says Jensen.
Beyond commercialization, the SBIR Program benefitted ViaSat because it complemented the company’s culture. As Jensen puts it, “SBIR allowed our engineers to tap their creative juices and be really effective in finding solutions.” As a result, during the fourteen years that ViaSat participated in the program, it garnered seventeen Phase III projects.
Today, ViaSat is publicly traded. Its clients span both the public and private sectors, and last year its revenue reached a record $688 million. Its three founders now oversee 2000 employees. Not bad for a startup that began with $25,000 consulting out of a garage.