Defense Program Taps Into Small Business Innovation

By Edward Lundquist
Making the transition from research and development to acquisition by the military is hard.

A Defense Department program called the Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) is designed to make that transition easier. It allows the military to collaborate with small businesses to provide innovative technologies that can be rapidly inserted into acquisition programs.

RIF is administered by the office of the secretary of defense, by the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering and the office of small business programs.

“The RIF program is not about disruptive technologies, because these technologies are mature,” said Bob Smith, the Navy’s program manager for RIF.  “But it has created a disruptive way of doing business because it has accelerated the acquisition process much faster than the normal budget cycle.” 

“It’s not the innovation of the technology. It’s the innovative application of a technology,” said Smith. “It could even be an innovative process change. Sometimes it’s the disruption of the bureaucracy.”

Initial proposals consist of a four-page white paper. If nominated by one of the services’ program executive offices and selected by the service, funding can be awarded for up to $3 million for two years to speed the insertion into a program of record. RIF doesn’t develop technologies; it validates that existing technologies will meet a requirement of a program of record.

A recent RIF success story involved a small Massachusetts company working with Brett Gardner, an engineer at the Navy’s Fleet Readiness Center Southwest in San Diego.

Gardner is involved in the maintenance and repair of aircraft, such as the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet. He saw an interesting product offered by Midé Technologies of Medford, Massachusetts, at the 2011 Navy Opportunity Forum that he believed could be adapted to help the Navy test aircraft.

“We sell a vibrational energy harvester for vibrating machinery that can be used to power sensors, microcontrollers, low power antennas or things like that. It has to be tuned properly to optimize how much energy you’ll get,” said Jeff Court, a company executive. “So we developed a small accelerometer to measure the vibrations. The result was the original Slam Stick.”

Gardner asked if the Slam Stick could measure G forces.  The answer was yes.
Instrumenting an aircraft is very expensive, Gardner said. “It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there has to be an engineer assigned to the project. The process takes a lot of time.”

If the fleet reports unexplained incidents of cracking in the avionics bay, Gardner said Slam Stick would help determine the cause.

”If the racks are breaking, and we don’t know what’s going on, we can put some two-sided tape on the Slam Stick; program the G loading, temperature or atmospheric pressure where you want it to go off — or it could be a combination of triggers; and place it near the area where you’re concerned about. You go out and do a flight test.” It records data that can help to make a determination if excessive G loading is causing the problem.”

The RIF funding will pay for the adaptation and validation of the Slam Stick for use as aircraft test equipment. 

“It’s unbelievable how little it cost to get this designed, compared to some of the systems we’ve paid for,” said Gardner. “If it takes off, the benefits and the cost savings to the taxpayer are going to be off the charts.”

“The RIF program turned something that was sort of a useful novelty item into a real engineering tool,” Gardner said.

Slam Stick is one of 16 projects executed by the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in the inaugural year of the RIF program. The remaining projects are on track for completion by the end of fiscal 2014, with anticipated transition shortly thereafter.

“NAVAIR’s success is due to the close relationship between the chief technology officer’s science and technology portfolio managers and the program officers,” said NAVAIR’s Chief Technology Officer James Sheehy. “The selection of topics was virtually effortless because contracting support was in place and ready to award while the program managers were poised waiting to accept the RIF project.”

Many RIF technologies have their origins in the Small Business Innovation Research program. Stuart Berkowitz of Out of the Fog Research in San Francisco said his company applied for RIF to take the technology it had developed previously under the SBIR program to build an engineering design model to evaluate for the Navy’s shipboard signal exploitation equipment program.

“With the RIF funding, we can test how well our technology performs, do shock and vibe testing and test responses to high and low temperature, electromagnetic interference and all of those things you might find out on a ship.  And that’s really the benefit of RIF. We’ve answered all those questions,” Berkowitz said. 

Berkowitz has this advice for companies considering applying for RIF: “You can’t just propose this cool technology and have it transition. You have to have a program of record saying, ‘We will buy it if you can prove that it actually does what you say it’s going do, and that it’s actually deployable.’” 

There are no guarantees that the program will be funded for acquisition, he said. “Perseverance is one of the key parameters to transition into the military marketplace.”
Smith said the first step to obtaining RIF funding is to watch for the next broad area announcement to come out.

“That’s your next funding opportunity, but you should start having conversations with the acquisition community now. Look at the websites, talk to the CTO’s science and technology portfolio managers, talk to the program manager and see what the challenges are. You can look at the most recent BAA, because most of those challenges will still be there in the next BAA. They are enduring challenges and we don’t have the money to solve all of them.” 

The white papers are relatively simple, but the evaluators are looking for convincing opportunities.

According to Robert Parker, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command deputy CTO and assistant PEO for science and technology within PEO C4I, the RIF program has become an important way to rapidly introduce new capabilities. “It exposes us to a wide range of companies that we wouldn’t normally see, since we don’t typically have industry days on our more generic requirements. We can get an assessment of what’s mature and what provides us a pretty high value to our programs of record.”

The funding of up to $3 million, he said, “reflects the emphasis on transition for capabilities that are already pretty mature.”

For SPAWAR, the transition rate for RIF projects is 50 percent. “I expect it to go higher,” said Parker. “We’re taking less risk. The RIF white paper process allows us to cherry pick the best capabilities for our programs.” 

His advice is to take advantage of the open communications period. “Every time a business calls us up, I pair them with a program office so they can have a much more detailed conversation,” said Parker. “I think companies have appreciated talking to us, even if the outcome isn’t what they hoped for.  If we tell them ‘Your technology isn’t something we can use,’ at least they know not to waste their time.”

RIF can involve something already planned for a program of record, but deliver it faster or make it better. A RIF-funded effort by Progeny Systems Corp. of Manassas, Virginia, to test the upgrade kit for the Mk-54 Mod 1 lightweight Torpedo to improve effectiveness in littoral and mine countermeasures environments, allowed the Navy to deploy that capability a year or so earlier than planned. “It was a modest investment to verify the capability,” said Smith. “The Navy was already planning to buy it, but now it can buy a better version of it. And it got enough fleet priority that it kind of moved to the front of the line.” 

Janet McGovern, one of NAVAIR’s science and technology portfolio managers who is also the command’s RIF lead, emphasizes the importance of building relationships over time. “We don’t want to discourage small companies from submitting their good ideas, but I certainly recommend that they do their homework in advance. If it’s a continuation of SBIR, then there’s a relationship with the program office already in place. But I think that it’s harder for a company to break through the barrier if they haven’t done the legwork ahead of time. It’s much more advantageous if they’ve had that relationship built beforehand.”

Smith said it comes down to effective communication. “Successful RIF projects result from starting and continuing a conversation.  And it usually is a conversation about a solution, technology solution, to my problem.  That’s how you do it.  And a lot of talking is involved because it’s a complex world.”

The time and effort is worth it, for all parties involved, he added. “On the Navy side, if you get selected, your odds really skyrocket that you’re going places — because we picked you, because we want you to succeed, because we need you to succeed, we want to transition you to our program.”

Edward Lundquist is a retired U.S. Navy captain and a principal science writer for MCR Federal in McLean, Virginia.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Defense Department, Procurement

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