Special Operations Command Opens SOFWERX to Attract Innovators
It’s easy to drive past without noticing U.S. Special Operations Command’s new innovation lab in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Fla. Inside the brick building where a tattoo parlor used to reside, the institute resembles an incubator you would find in Silicon Valley with bright colors, exposed brick walls and a workshop for makers to develop new gadgets for special operators.
Called SOFWERX, SOCOM opened the institute in September to encourage collisions between innovators and special operations officials. James “Hondo” Guerts, the acquisition executive for SOCOM, explained at last month’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa how SOFWERX offers a venue for small businesses and startups working on new technologies to learn about new SOCOM acquisition programs and meet other companies working on similar projects.
SOCOM leaders wanted to open a space near the command’s headquarters in Tampa but somewhere more inviting and less intimidating than a military compound where small business leaders and entrepreneurs could visit without having to pass through security. SOFWERX is meant to help inject SOCOM with new ideas on some of its most ambitious development programs like the TALOS suit — often referred to as the Iron Man suit because of the ambitious capabilities SOCOM leaders hope to offer special operators with it.
The opening of SOFWERX comes in the midst of the Pentagon’s push to reach innovators and encourage new companies to get involved with military acquisition programs. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has made it a top priority opening offices in Silicon Valley and later Boston to introduce military programs to commercial tech companies in those regions.
SOFWERX is run by the Doolittle Institute with a staff of five full-time employees and a host of rotating interns. The staff outfitted the 10,000 square foot space with a conference room, meeting rooms, and a workshop with 3-D printers and other tools. Five blocks down the street, the staff is turning a former auto-body shop into a larger workshop called DIRTYWERX that will allow companies to work on rapid prototypes.
The SOFWERX staff explained that the institute is not meant to be an incubator. SOFWERX is not investing in startups, it’s offering opportunities and education to innovators. The institute’s calendar is filled with speaking engagements, hackathons and meetups such as Warfighter Wednesday and Mil-OSS Meetup. SOFWERX Director Tambrien Bates explained that the institute is continuing to introduce new events and opportunities as the young organization identifies what resonates with SOCOM leaders and innovators.
Bates said he sees SOFWERX as an ecosystem, or a marketplace, for SOCOM to bring challenges and for companies from the local region and across the country to offer new ideas to some of the hardest problems facing special operations teams.
Those ideas and innovations are already rolling in the doors. A 3-D printable drone was on display when TandemNSI staff members toured SOFWERX last month. A Tampa-area innovator brought the idea for the drone to SOFWERX after hearing about the organization. SOCOM commanders have been asking for 3-D printed drones to allow special operators to print drones to fit their needs.
Tony Davis, director of SOCOM Science & Technology, heralded the opening of SOFWERX during his speech at SOFIC saying it will help SOCOM make connections to nontraditional performers. He emphasized the need for more collisions pointing to the investments made by Zappos Founder Tony Hsieh has made in Las Vegas to encourage startups to work close together in the city better known for gambling. Hsieh has said he seeks a “high return on collisions,” not investment.
Davis and other SOCOM leaders hope to see more collisions at SOFWERX and new technology innovations across the SOCOM acquisition directorate.
— Michael Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @_MichaelHoffman.