By Clara Conti
The perspective that I provide as I write this article is one of an entrepreneur. I’ve attended several TandemNSI events and met entrepreneurs who are interested in doing business with government organizations and heard them talk about the expense, uncertainty, time intensity and politics involved in doing so. At the same TandemNSI events, I’ve heard level executives from government organizations talk about their desire to engage entrepreneurial companies and the need to fix the hurdles they know are present. It seems that the chasm has to do with a lack of resources on both sides of this equation.
The State of Virginia has a program called Virginia Leaders in Export Trade (VALET) which is designed to help Virginia-based companies expand into International markets. Virginia benefits economically when its companies are successful. What the program does really well is to provide a two year business acceleration program for 25 qualifying companies to develop their international business plans, hone their products and establish themselves in a foreign country. The program employs a network of Trade Managers who guide companies through the program. It also coordinates “Trade Missions” which are intense, well-orchestrated, guided business trips to foreign countries where companies meet potential partners and customers. Other important resources made available to the 25 qualifying companies include market research, business licensing, introductions, cultural advice, access to relevant publications and business mentoring. It also provided access to IP attorneys, marketing firms, accountants and international banking experts.
I had experience with the the VALET program when I was hired to implement a reseller program for Manassas-based Tracen Technologies. In Tracen’s case, they were aware that they had a market opportunity in Australia but needed help thinking through pricing, products and partners. The VALET program gave them the runway they needed. Tracen has just “graduated” but are well on their way with one reseller already established in Australia. The VALET Program was instrumental in identifying and vetting potential partners in the UK and Australia and in providing logistical support for the company’s highly successful mini-roadshow in Australia.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from Virginia’s VALET program when supporting young, local companies with cool technologies and great ideas. But these companies don’t have deep pockets or vast resources to help them navigate through “cultural” and business realities so there’s a safe environment for both parties at the table. The guided trade missions and mentoring programs used here provides a model that should be experimented with since working with our own government agencies can require some translation.
Pentagon leaders have chosen to take a bite out of the military’s science and technology spending as overall budget numbers have flat lined following the passage of sequestration.
The result means the military has dropped its investment in innovation at a time when it might be needed most. The Pentagon is transitioning out of more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to redefine the military’s composition as new threats come into focus while old ones remain.
Those old ones choose not to fade away easily and continue to provide evolving threats. Russian armored vehicles have repeatedly crossed the Ukrainian border stoking memories of the Cold War, and U.S. warplanes have again been called on to launch airstrikes in Iraq. Yet, China’s military continues to evolve and Chinese military leaders have shown no interest in backing down as their influence spreads across the Pacific region.
However, the funds for the research that Pentagon leaders claim fuel the breakthroughs for the next generation of military equipment is going down, not up. This year, the U.S. military requested $500 million less than the $12 billion it spent last year out of the nearly $500 billion 2015 defense budget.
The overall $11.5 billion S&T budget breaks out to $5 billion for advanced technology development, $4.5 billion for applied research and $2 billion for basic research. While the budget is dropping, the Pentagon claims it remains committed to developing the next generation of technologies and weapons.
“Although the FY2015 request is slightly lower than the FY2014 enacted amount of $12.0 billion, the Department’s S&T program remains strong and continues the focus of Anti-access/Area-denial, and the re-balance to the Asia Pacific region,” the Pentagon wrote into its budget request.
Military brass across the services have stood up and said the failure to accomplish the research now will cause the U.S. to lose the decisive technological edge it currently enjoys. Therefore, the military has to execute a strategy that allows the services to attract innovative companies efficiently.
This has proven to be a challenge for the Pentagon as its acquisition system is currently constructed. Many of the companies doing research on the cutting edge of breakthrough technologies like 3-D printing, robotics and hypersonics are not the traditional defense industry powerhouses.
The Army is the latest service to show its lack of willingness to adopt the work of companies who fall outside the defense industrial giants. Earlier this month, it awarded contracts for the technology development phase of its next generation helicopter fleet. The industry’s old guard, Textron’s Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky and Boeing received contracts. Relative newbies, AVX Aircraft and Karem Aircraft, who also put in bids, were left out of the development program to replace the Apache and Blackhawk helicopters by the mid-2030s.
The military’s acquisition arm has to become comfortable with companies that fall outside the industrial giants if it is to keep up with the latest research and innovations within the fields the Pentagon wants to make the greatest strides.
Dan Doney, chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, recognizes this problem. It is why he helped create Needipedia after he saw so many entrepreneurs and small business leaders that had potential solutions for DIA, but didn’t know how to get those solutions before intelligence leaders. Needipedia lays out DIA’s needs and offers a relatively easy format for companies to offer their services. It seems like a basic idea, but agencies such as the Defense Department have not yet adopted a platform that simplifies the process in the same manner.
Fed Biz Ops could be seen as the Defense Department’s answer to Needipedia, but it takes quite a bit of homework to search and understand the Fed Biz Ops platform and the military nomenclature built into it. Doney has spoken at multiple TandemNSI events, including the one on Aug. 7, “Building a Bigger Tent for Technology Innovators: The Government is More Creative than You Think.” He explained the importance of simplifying the acquisition process to allow national security agencies to get access to the newest companies seeking the next technological breakthroughs.
The Defense Department has introduced programs to help attract nontraditional performers to government contracts. TandemNSI Managing Director Jonathan Aberman listed a few in his white paper, “Building a Bigger Tent for Technology Innovators: The Government is More Creative than You Think.” Programs like DARPA’s Cyber Fast Track Program have tried to institute workarounds to streamline the Pentagon’s acquisition process to keep up with the latest technologies in cyber security. But more can be done to attract these nontraditional performers.
Again, the Pentagon realizes it has a need to innovate now. A closer look at the Pentagon’s future budget plan shows less of an emphasis on system development in order to stash away more money for basic research, according to a report by Defense News. Put more simply, the Pentagon wants to produce fewer widgets now in order to fund a wave of new equipment and vehicles ten years or more in the future. While programs like the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle might be getting cut, the Pentagon is protecting funding to develop more futuristic programs like the Air Force’s Long Range Bomber.
A program like the Long Range Bomber will require quite a bit of innovation as Air Force generals dream up an aircraft that can travel across the globe in merely a few hours. Nontraditional performers and smaller tech firms will have the answers to many of the questions the Air Force will need. The industrial giants will not have them all. To deliver a program such as the next generation bomber that Air Force leadership says is crucial to keeping the U.S. ahead of China; the Pentagon must improve its acquisition system and ability to work with technological entrepreneurs. Otherwise America’s defense industrial edge will be put at risk.