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This column was originally published on Roger WaldronÔÇÖs blog at The Coalition for Government Procurement and was republished here with permission from the author.

The Federal GovernmentÔÇÖs small business strategy dates back to 1953, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Small Business Act, establishing the Small Business Administration. PresidentÔÇö and General ÔÇö Eisenhower recognized that equity dictates that small businesses be given a fair opportunity to compete for government contracts. However, he also recognized the importance of small businesses to national security. From experience, he knew that small businesses can be more nimble and less bureaucratic, allowing them to develop capabilities faster and shift focus more rapidly. Over the years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has significantly benefited from its small business efforts.

Unfortunately, DoD is currently struggling to attract many of the most innovative and promising small businesses to the defense market. When partnerships do occur, DoD faces obstacles to effectively capitalize on technologies developed by small businesses, due to factors such as complexities with integrating designs and scaling production. DoD moves too slowly; startups and investors find it hard to justify the upfront investment and endure long cycle times to get a return on investment ÔÇö even if the return would otherwise be attractive. For these reasons, many vital technology start-ups are deterred from government collaborations.

While DoD consistently meets its targets for the dollar-number of contracts that it awards to small businesses, these targets appear to be an end in themselves, rather than a catalyst for a small business strategy that prioritizes small businessÔÇÖ capabilities to improve national defense. As the Section 809 Panel found,

ÔÇ£DoD is not fully capitalizing on small businessesÔÇÖ innovativeness. Instead, DoD appears to focus its small business policies and programs on acquiring goods and services based on meeting societal goals not related to mission.ÔÇØ

These findings led the Panel to recommend that DoD refocus its ÔÇ£small business policies and programs to prioritize mission[…].ÔÇØ We concur. DoD needs to reimagine its small business strategies to focus more on capabilities developed by, not dollars awarded to, small businesses. Awarding contracts to small businesses that are not adding value to goods and services should not be the primary barometer of success. Rather, how rapidly DoD identifies and integrates small businessesÔÇÖ novel capabilities into its military and business operations, as well as the utility of these capabilities, are examples of better metrics. As the most recent National Defense Industrial Strategy points out, speed of acquisition and production/adoption at scale are critical for defining success. In its effort to implement innovative industrial base strategies, DoD should establish a mentor-purchaser pathway, focused on rewarding small businesses (and investors) who develop needed capabilities, and then rapidly scaling and integrating these capabilities into the force.

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Enticing Small Businesses

DoD and other government agencies can entice small businesses to enter the government industrial base by enabling profitable exit strategies on projects. For example, DoD could establish a mentor-purchaser pathway, focused on rewarding small businesses (and investors) who develop needed capabilities, and then rapidly scaling and integrating these capabilities into the force. The Army unrolled a program called Project Vista that partially addresses this goal by incentivizing large defense contractors with source selection credits if they include in their proposals technology developed through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Let us take this one step further ÔÇöDoD should consider leaning into programs that combine government and private sector-funded venture capital with mentorship from experienced defense contractors. These larger contractors can, when beneficial to all parties, eventually purchase, scale, and/or more seamlessly integrate such technologies for faster use by DoD.

The argument for a mentor-purchaser pathway is simple. Some small companies (and their investors) have neither the resources nor the desire to try to slog through the ÔÇ£Valley of Death.ÔÇØ They may require a faster exit strategy. They may prefer to remain an engineering or R&D-oriented company. They may not want to run the DoD acquisition gauntlet of excessive regulation and confusing bureaucracy. Or they may lack the …

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Other Ways to Support Small Business

A Mentor-Purchaser program is not the only way to reimagine the small business strategy and both expand small business participation in the defense industrial base and identify promising capabilities offered by small businesses. For example, companies seeking to compete for classified contracts require a workforce that has security clearances and facilities that are accredited to handle classified work. The process to establish, build, and accredit Secure Compartment Information Facilities (SCIFs) takes time and considerable financial resources ÔÇö resources that small businesses generally cannot afford. This creates a barrier to entry. However, such small businesses could be supported through a program that creates shared SCIFs, either through allowing access to underutilized existing SCIF space ÔÇö or establishing new SCIFs in excess GSA facilities. To offset the costs to the government, a WeWork time model could be adopted where companies pay for the time they use the spaces.

Novel approaches to a new small business strategy, such as establishing a mentor-purchaser program and creating shared SCIF spaces, can help foster a more innovative, responsive, and collaborative ecosystem that drives progress and ensures a competitive edge for DoD in an ever-evolving technological landscape.

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