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DoD innovation units join forces to engage small business

Senior Airman Alzara Kimalova, Air Force Sustainment Center contract specialist, walks through power-off procedures for C-130H Hercules through virtual reality technology at the Inaugural Pitch Day hosted by the Robins Spark Cell and AFSC Contracting located at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Sept. 20, 2019, at the Advanced Technology and Training Center in Warner Robins, Ga. The event is an initial prototype effort to assess the capabilities of current commercially available virtual reality training systems when used in a military environment, particularly within the 461st and 116th Air Control Wings at Robins. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tommie Horton)

Senior Airman Alzara Kimalova, Air Force Sustainment Center contract specialist, walks through power-off procedures for a C-130H Hercules through virtual reality technology at the Inaugural Pitch Day hosted by the Robins Spark Cell and AFSC Contracting located at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., Sept. 20, 2019, at the Advanced Technology and Training Center in Warner Robins, Ga. The event is an initial prototype effort to assess the capabilities of current commercially available VR training systems when used in a military environment, particularly within the 461st and 116th Air Control Wings at Robins AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tommie Horton)

SAN ANTONIO (AFNS) -- In the collaborative nature of innovation efforts in the Department of Defense, five agencies came together to present the first-ever Joint Small Business Innovation Research Open Topic for the first application period of 2020.

Over the past few months, AFWERX, Army Futures Command, NavalX, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Security Innovation Network have joined forces to make this experimental concept an interagency initiative built to bridge the gap between startups, small businesses and government.

“This represents a single front door for the DoD, where small companies can access a portion of the approximately $1.5 billion of DoD SBIR funds within 90 days of applying,” said Capt. Chris Benson, AFWERX AFVentures lead. “Companies that go on a Joint Phase I can now go to a Phase II with any of the participating organizations.”

In 2018, AFWERX worked with other Air Force organizations like the Air Force Research Laboratory to revamp the congressionally-funded SBIR process by reducing submission requirements and accelerating the time it takes to issue contracts.

"Startups and small businesses are moving faster than the government is typically used to," said Capt. Steve Lauver, AFWERX director of technology accelerators. "Before they would consider working with us, we needed to simplify and accelerate our process to meet them halfway."

The Open Topic concept also allows all majority U.S.-owned businesses with fewer than 500 employees to initially submit their commercial off-the-shelf solutions as opposed to developing a product for a specific solicitation.

After receiving a contract and $50,000 in seed funding, companies in Phase I of the program are encouraged to locate a Department of Defense customer before applying for a Phase II and receiving additional money to complete a trial run with an end-user.

All companies that have received a Phase I contract are eligible for a contract with any federal government agency without the need for further competition, making the contracting process smoother.

By transitioning this to a DoD initiative as opposed to exclusively an Air Force one, these innovation units are hoping to provide a straightforward platform for startups and small businesses to work with the government.

"In the Defense Innovation ecosystem, it can be extremely tough for businesses to know where to turn to find a customer for their product or service," said David Schiff, NavalX deputy director. "As we look to the future, it's vital that our agencies come together with a collective voice to interface with the private sector."

Since the introduction of the Open Topic in late 2018 through 2019, the program has received more than 3,600 submissions and awarded more than 1,300 contracts worth a combined total value of approximately $240 million.

"Collaboration across services is critical for modernization efforts,” said Casey Perly, Army Applications Lab technical insights and analysis director. “By participating in a Joint SBIR Open Topic, we can work together to deliver tangible capabilities to the warfighter, and simultaneously provide small businesses better access to the DoD."

Learn more about this new way of doing SBIR on the AFWERX website.