Strengthening Deparment of Defense Relationships with Anna Vulaj Fitzsimmons 

Jun 11, 2024 | Podcast | 0 comments


Anna Vulaj Fitzsimmons brings 30 years of experience in government contracting and business development. As the Program Director for Monroe County Finger Lakes APEX Accelerator since 2015, she has facilitated over $629 million in government contract awards for small businesses.  Anna is an active member of several prominent councils and boards, including the Department of Defense East Regional Council and the National APEX Accelerator Alliance.  We have been collaborating with her and APEX for our JTAC application and thought it would be important to help amplify the important work APEX does for the Rochester business community.  There are 98 APEX communities across the United States.

Here are a few moments of the recent 360° Podcast with Anna Vulaj Fitzsimmons.

Share Your Background and What Got You To APEx

I started my journey thanks to some incredible co-op programs and internships. I’m not sure if we have any college students out there listening to this podcast, but I hope we do because I’m a huge advocate for these programs. My own journey began at St. John Fisher College, where I landed two key back-to-back internships: one with the Greater Rochester Metro Chamber of Commerce and the other with WXXI, our local NPR affiliate. 

These internships turned into jobs that were very relevant to my career. I became a city beat reporter for WXXI, which was fantastic because I grew up and lived in Rochester for 20 years, so I knew the city well. This role really allowed me to connect the dots between businesses and the community. I reported on impactful economic development stories during a time when Kodak was a major player. Even though the landscape has changed, our economy still benefits from the legacies of such companies. 

After WXXI, I moved into public relations, which I jokingly call “going to the dark side.” I did PR for the Chamber, working for three registered lobbyists. Our focus was on government affairs and ensuring that the business community’s voice was heard in Albany and Washington, DC. Manufacturing was always a key focus, and I spent 10 years there, eventually becoming the Director of Communications. 

When my daughter was born, I decided to stay home with her for a few years, while still doing some work for the Chamber, which had by then merged to become the Rochester Business Alliance. Later, some old colleagues reached out from what was then known as PTech, now the Apex Accelerator, asking if I wanted to do some marketing for them on a part-time basis. I happily accepted and have been with the organization for 16 years now. I started as a Manager of Business Development and eventually became the Program Director. 

In my role, I get to combine my understanding of the community and the business landscape, translating that into support for the defense and government industrial base through various government contracts. A significant part of my job is showcasing the accomplishments of our region—Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse—and the amazing technology and innovation coming out of our universities like RIT, the University of Rochester, and MCC

share How APEX ACCElerator Helps

APEX helps with infrastructure, finances, and organization, particularly focusing on people capital. Innovators often have great ideas but may lack the skills to manage other aspects of the business. Understanding that doing business with the government is a long-term commitment is crucial. It’s essential to gauge expectations and grow at an appropriate rate to avoid overcommitting and overpromising. Success in government contracting hinges on performance and delivery. 

APEX advises on mapping out marketing strategies to understand the buyers and develop relationships early. Understanding purchasing cycles and what the government has bought in the past is key. Companies need to be prepared well in advance, as being late to the game can mean missing out on significant opportunities. 

Being mission-ready involves thorough homework on potential partners and understanding the broader system your product will be part of. For instance, identifying AI partners early can be crucial for success. APEX emphasizes the importance of aligning your capabilities with the government’s needs to be ready when larger contracts become available. 

Share the Key Technology Areas the Department of Defense is Focused on And Our Ecosystem

The Department of Defense has a list of key technology areas they’re focusing including gas turbine and engine technologies, advanced manufacturing, networked sensing and signature management, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and robotics, biotech, directed energy, human-machine interfaces, and quantum technology.  Our region has a lot of success in these areas. Please continue to pay attention to the REMADE Institute out of Rochester Institute of Technology and the Laboratory for Laser Energetics from University of Rochester. I also want to mention Air Force Research Laboratory out in Rome, New York, highly interested in small businesses building technologies in these categories.

I would also like to mention that boots-on-the-ground folks like NYSTAR work directly with small businesses to commercialize their technology. That’s the hardest part—commercializing and getting funding for these great ideas.

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The broad network and strong backing from the Department of Defense are crucial. This support helps drive innovation and ensures that companies like Circle Opitcs has the resources they need to succeed. It’s great to see such a committed effort to foster new technologies and help businesses grow. Circle Optics is strengthening its relationship with the Monroe County Finger Lakes APEX Accelerator , National Security Innovation Network, Decisive Point and DTI.  

Post Tags: DOD, Innovation, SBIR, STTR

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