Navigating the DoD-Revenue Labyrinth
Innovation and bureaucracy generally do not mix well. The former looks beyond traditional thinking to develop new and creative ways to address challenges. The latter is grounded in a regulatory and organizational framework built up over time designed to maintain order and control outcomes.
In contracting with the DoD, innovative companies accustomed to loose-fitting private sector norms, must learn to adapt to an environment beset with rigid rules and labyrinthine processes. Successfully navigating such an environment requires specialized knowledge, a willingness to conform, and patience.
This blog is the first in a series focused on providing information and tips to startup founders looking to engage on potential opportunities with the DoD. The series loosely follows the contracting process from initial discovery to contract revenue.
Getting Started: Know Your Resources
The DoD recognizes the challenges businesses face in the contracting process, particularly small businesses with fewer resources or familiarity with government contracting. To help, the DoD has created the Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP). The stated mission of this entity is to “maximize opportunities for small businesses to contribute to national security by providing the direction and resources needed to achieve the DoD’s small business procurement objectives.”
Among the OSBP resources are a series of programs that small businesses should be familiar with as they consider entering the DoD contracting process. Brief summaries of four of these programs are included below:
- APEX Accelerators (Formerly called the Procurement Technical Assistance Program): APEX Accelerators are regional offices manned by small business professionals designed to help businesses navigate key steps in the DoD contracting process including: determining whether they are ready for government opportunities, completing database registrations (e.g., SAM – more about this process to come); identifying agencies that need products; and networking with buying officers and prime contractors. Small businesses can access the APEX website to find and contact the closest APEX office in their state.
- Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/SBTT): The SBIR and SBTT are DoD programs that “set aside” Federal research funds to support contractors providing the DoD with products and services that help the agency maintain technological superiority. Throughout the year the DoD issues Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs) and Commercial Solution Openings (CSOs) which identify SBIR and STTR topics of interest. Eligible small businesses with the capability to conduct R&D on a topic are encouraged to submit contract proposals in response. To help the process along the OSBP website includes an interactive guide that outlines the steps in the application process as well as an FAQ section and related links associated with each step.
- Defense Innovation Unit (DIU): The DIU is focused on fielding and scaling commercial technology across the U.S. military. It works with private companies to help adapt and scale up their existing commercial technologies for military applications. The DIU is accessible through offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, Chicago and inside the Pentagon. The DIU solicits proposals through its Commercial Solution Opening (CSO) process and can award prototype agreements in as few as 60-90 days. More information is available on the DIU website.
- Mentor-Protégé Process (MPP): The MPP helps eligible small businesses join the defense industrial base by helping them partner with larger companies that already have a relationship with the DoD. Small businesses must first establish on their own an association with a Mentor. However, once the relationship is established the MPP can help with the process of completing the application for the program and following it through to completion.
This is not an exhaustive list of the resources available to startup founders aspiring defense contractors from the OSBP, or other entities in the DoD. The Air Force, for example, sponsors an innovation arm called AFWERX which helps startups and small businesses meet the most pressing challenges of the Air Force. Founders are advised to explore the OSBP and other DoD websites for additional resources that may be relevant to their specific capabilities. Of particular interest may be “set asides” offering special advantages to women, minority, or veteran-owned companies.
The DoD recognizes the growing importance of innovation in maintaining national security and is working to deconstruct the bureaucratic barriers endemic to their traditional procurement processes. While the contracting process is still daunting, now more than ever there is help out there for companies motivated enough to engage the DoD market.