Vita Inclinata’s Caleb Carr
Jamel Toppin for Forbes
Vita Inclinata cofounders Caleb Carr and Derek Sikora came up with a way to stabilize helicopter lift systems, used in everything from emergency rescues to supply deliveries. In this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, they got the nod for millions of dollars of orders to outfit UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
Exactly how much remains to be seen during the reconciliation process. An amendment in the Senate version, proposed by Sen. Cory Gardner (Colorado-Republican) sets aside $11.09 million to outfit 39 Black Hawk helicopters in fiscal 2021. The funds will go to “procurement of additional litter-attached load stability systems to be deployed on the bottom of the helicopter hoist, on 39 aircraft,” the amendment states. The House version, proposed by Rep. Kendra Horn (Oklahoma-Democrat), calls for half that amount.
Carr, 25 and an alumnus of last year’s Forbes Under list who we profiled then, says that while the amount remains uncertain he fully expects to win the deal when the Senate and House versions are reconciled. “At the very least,” he says, “we’re walking away with $5.5 million.”
The win comes at an important time for Vita Inclinata. The company, founded by Carr while he was still a college student at the University of Colorado, was in the process of finalizing $150 million in contracts with a few global military suppliers at the end of last year. But with the upheavals of the coronavirus pandemic, those contracts disappeared. “When the Singapore Air Show got canceled and Japan started to shut down, that was the first hit,” he says. “It was just, ‘What the hell do we do?’”
With nothing to lose, Carr, an outgoing man and convincing salesman, decided to relocate from Colorado to Washington, D.C., on April 1, and try to finagle his way into the defense budget. “Everybody said, ‘There’s no way in God’s green earth that you’ll get anything in the 2021 NDAA. It’s usually worked on in December, and I didn’t even know about you till May 16 or 17,’” he says. But he kept calling, appealing to Sen. Gardner with his company’s Colorado headquarters and to Rep. Horn and Sen. Jim Inhofe (Oklahoma-Republican) with the fact that military helicopters used by the Oklahoma National Guard could be made safer with his technology.
“The technology that Vita has designed and developed is an elegant solution to this important challenge that is faced by a lot of rescue operations,” says Horn, who notes that she originally advocated for an $11 million authorization and expects the final authorization will likely be between the House and Senate amounts. “I think it is an important reminder that we as members of Congress need to take time to listen to small companies and people coming up with innovative ideas, and figure out ways to ensure that we are not brushing them off.”
Vita had gone through the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars and received some $50,000 from the Air Force’s innovation arm AFWERX, giving it a military seal of approval. Still, Carr says, this is the first time that a project by an AFWERX startup had gotten into the National Defense Authorization Act.
In the scheme of the entire defense budget, $11 million, the highest amount the contract could be worth, is a pittance. But for a small startup, it’s a huge deal both for the actual revenue and for the imprimatur of the Defense Department. “For me, it’s mission accomplished,” Carr says. “Everyone is shocked that this came through. No one thought that this was even possible.”
Now, Carr says, his hope is that his win can help pave the way for other startups that have gone through the AFWERX program, but are having difficulty getting noticed. Part of the idea of AFWERX, after all, was to incubate military innovations that could give the Department of Defense an edge. Yet making the connection between AFWERX and federal budgeting hasn’t been so easy. “Companies like Vita Inclinata and others that are innovative are really critical to our nation’s security,” Horn says. “We need to make sure we can cut the red tape on innovation.”