SPECIAL OPERATIONS

Need for Speed: SOFWERX Zeros In on Rapid Acquisition

5/10/2021
By Mandy Mayfield
A SOFWERX technician mills a metal plate.

SOCOM photo by Master Sgt. Barry Loo

An innovation hub linked with Special Operations Command is pivoting its efforts from discovering new technology to more rapidly putting capabilities into the hands of commandos.

The SOFWERX hub was stood up in 2017 under a partnership agreement with SOCOM to help solve challenging warfighter problems in collaboration with industry, academia and government stakeholders. Since its creation, the organization has set out to solve a number of issues and begun weekly virtual forums inviting creators to pitch their unique solutions.

SOFWERX Director Leslie Babich, who joined the Tampa, Florida-based center in late 2020, is realigning its efforts to focus on rapid procurement, not just tech discovery, said Brian Andrews, the organization’s chief technology officer.

“We’re going to really focus our efforts on the acquisition piece and how do we shorten that timeline from SOFWERX [developing] a proof of concept to getting it into the warfighters’ hands,” he said in an interview.

That includes everything from how the command can get the money to purchase a system as well as the sustainment, training, support, logistics and delivery aspects, he added.

Although SOFWERX is changing its priorities, it will still have efforts geared toward discovery, Andrews noted.

To walk lockstep with Special Operations Command, SOFWERX is closely aligned with the organization’s program executive offices, Andrews noted.

“Those 11 PEOs ... are closely tied with SOFWERX and they work with us through what we call a collaborative project order,” he explained.

The order allows the offices to give SOFWERX a broad, but complex, problem set that often does not have a single solution that can solve it. SOFWERX then takes those issues, puts together a team and facilitates discovery and ideation to fully define the problem and identify solutions, he said.

“That is kind of the magic of SOFWERX because we can put in a room an end user that has the problem; the acquisition folks that are going to plan out the money and the acquisition strategy; the academics; ... industry partners that might be able to provide a solution; and even the national labs or subject matter experts,” Andrews said. “We sit there and kind of hash over what the art of the possible is.”

The group also gets inquiries from components of SOCOM when they are facing a problem in a very specific area, Andrews said.

“We had a thing called warfighter nomination where they could go online and answer about five questions about their problem,” he said. A team would then take the issues to the command and ask if they should be worked on.

“Since then, it’s become a little more formalized and now they give us research topics for our Tech Tuesday events,” he said. “Then we go scout our ecosystem to try to see if there’s someone out there to solve their problems.”

The hub currently focuses on three different kinds of innovation: incremental, adjacent and transformational.

“Incremental” innovation focuses on making improvements to existing military technology. “Adjacent” innovation centers around taking technology from a different market and modifying it for the warfighter. “Transformational” innovation includes procuring game-changing capabilities.

To zero in on finding more transformational technologies, every week SOFWERX hosts “Tech Tuesday” events where industry and academia can join virtual forums to pitch their capabilities to SOCOM and other government partners.

“Tech Tuesday is our event where any group can submit — if they think they have a transformational technology — to us and then we align that with the component groups” for SOCOM, he said.

Meanwhile, SOFWERX has recently begun mulling over solutions to a perennial issue: maintenance.

Some of the maintenance procedures and tools the military uses are dated, Andrews noted. One example includes treating and maintaining the bottom of the hulls of Navy vessels.

“There’s a lot of technology that’s come out with … biocides that are now environmentally friendly that will keep growth off the bottom of the ship,” he said. The service has been using regular paint for decades, “so why not experiment with some of these newer biocide paints that keep the particles from growing on the bottom of the ship?” he asked.

Biocides are a chemical substance intended to destroy, deter and render harmless a damaging organism.

Although the hub is looking at how it can aid the maintenance of warfighting capabilities, it has also brought a number of new technologies to the military since its inception.

New technologies the organization has recently been working on include the Silent Tactical Energy Enhanced Dismount, or STEED. The platform is an all-terrain electrically powered cart that allows users to move equipment up hills, through waterlogged areas and even in subterranean environments, he said.

The idea came from Hendrick Motorsports, a North Carolina-based racecar company that pitched the capability to SOFWERX, which further developed it for Special Operations Command, Andrews said.

Another innovation SOFWERX recently procured is the goTenna. The hub discovered the capability online through a Kickstarter campaign. The individuals who created the product conceived of it after seeing the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 that left many individuals and organizations with degraded communication capabilities, Andrews said.

“They came up with this Kickstarter idea to make this tiny UHF radio that you could kind of pin on a backpack or wear in your pocket,” he said. “It’s about the size of a large stick of gum maybe, or a small makeup case.”

The ultra high frequency radio can connect via Bluetooth to a cell phone and allow radio communications over several miles, Andrews said.

The company now makes a military version that has encryption called the goTennaX.

“There is a whole team of guys carrying these that now have a low data rate communication device,” he said.

Commandos operating on the side of a mountain in a remote area or in the middle of the desert far away from cell phone towers can use the system to communicate, all without the need of a satellite.

“It is an interesting success story of two entrepreneurs … [creating] a commercial product, and then we brought them into the SOFWERX ecosystem and now they’re selling military-type products to the end users,” he said.

Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the internet literacy of innovation hubs such as SOFWERX is helping to bring more non-traditional players into the defense world.

Government acquisition is very process oriented, Hunter noted. Its procedure for procurement typically involves posting solicitations on government websites and assuming individuals and organizations who are interested in doing business with Uncle Sam will find them and submit a proposal.

“It is a little extreme to say that’s all the government does because I think program offices will often reach out to people that they know might be interested and flag a solicitation for them or bring it to their attention,” Hunter said. However, “that still kind of relies on people in the contracting office knowing who they think might be interested.”

Therefore, the current process “heavily reinforces the fact that people who are in the [government contracting] business find out what’s going on in the business, and people who aren’t in the inner circle have a really hard time getting information or understanding it,” he said.

This structure can create barriers for companies that don’t have a history of working for the government, he noted.

Tech hubs such as SOFWERX, on the other hand, are often better at connecting with a wide range of innovators, he suggested.

“The advantage that a lot of these organizations that are innovation hubs have is they ... are more what I would characterize as digital natives,” Hunter said.

“They were created in an era where all the modern tools of the internet existed and were accessible and they’re not trying to adapt to modern life from archaic government systems that long predate modern life.

“They just have an advantage in outreach and in breaking through these barriers to industry and getting to a wider swath of people because they use things like Facebook, they use other avenues, more modern avenues of communication to reach out to industry and identify new sources,” he added.

Another aspect that stands out particularly in the Special Operations Forces community is that leaders are very “aggressive” about facilitating outreach to companies they are interested in working with, Hunter said.

“As you might imagine with special operators, they don’t sit back and wait for people to find them — they actively go out looking for products that could be useful and they will start up a relationship,” he said.

It’s atypical for a government team to reach out to industry members that haven’t contacted them, Hunter said.

Moving forward, SOFWERX hopes to connect with the other services’ innovation hubs, national labs and other organizations by building unique capabilities to streamline the procurement of transformational technologies without accidentally duplicating efforts.

“There are a lot of people working on a problem that got solved in a lab two years ago — they just don’t know who to ask, and that is a problem,” Andrews said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a SOFWERX problem to solve, but we’d love to be a part of [trying] … to figure out how all these innovation centers communicate.”

Topics: Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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