WASHINGTON—The Air Force is looking for a company to lead a new space consortium formed to help broaden participation in space acquisition programs to startups and small businesses.

During the Air Force Innovation Forum in San Jose, Calif., Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James on Monday announced that the service had issued a request for information for a not-for-profit manager of the Space Enterprise Consortium.

Companies that take part in the consortium will be eligible to compete for rapid prototyping projects and — if successful — spin them off into programs of record. Although both large and small businesses and traditional and nontraditional firms will be chosen for the group, the service especially wants to see increased participation from startups and other vendors that are pioneering innovative space capabilities but don't necessarily work regularly with the Defense Department, James said.

"We hope the setup will lower barrier to entry, accelerate the timeline from solicitation to award, develop intellectual property rights agreements and eventually transition some successful prototypes to vendor-supported, off-the-shelf projects," she said.

In a typical acquisition program, the Air Force’s requirements can amount to hundreds of pages of technical specifications, meaning that even startups with effective, inexpensive approaches to problems have a hard time entering the defense sector, James said. For that reason, the service relies on a small number of large firms to create products.

That’s "not good enough for the future," she said. The service needs to develop space capabilities more rapidly, and for that to happen, it needs to become more accessible and understandable to nontraditional companies.

The hope is to pick a manager "as soon as possible" and launch the first initiative later this fiscal year, James said. Space and Missile Systems Center is in charge of identifying potential prototyping projects, and is considering several unclassified and classified requirements for its initial endeavor.

According to the solicitation on the FedBizOps website, the consortium manager will be in charge of organizing the group’s activities, recruiting and vetting members, helping the government prepare prototype solicitations and managing interactions between the government and members.

The government is considering a $100 million ceiling on awards, as well as adopting a structure that would compel large, traditional defense firms to share one-third of the cost of development, the solicitation said. Small businesses, nontraditional businesses or teams with a significant amount of nontraditional participation would not have to contribute any internal funding.

"We are looking forward to reviewing multiple vendor suggestions for innovative approaches to employing a consortium with other transactions agreement," Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force program executive officer for space and commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement. "In today’s contested space environment, we hope to introduce additional diverse industrial participation in the space enterprise to drive innovation and quick-reaction capabilities."

The Air Force has previously used the "Other Transaction Authority" to pool vendors in a OT consortium, named for the obscure contracting authority that allows for speedy program prototyping, among other things. In fiscal year 2017, members of the OT consortium can bid on queue of more than a dozen projects worth about $24 million, James said.