AUSTIN, Texas--The U.S. Air Force’s mission is as varied as the Airmen who execute it, but one aspect of the service’s efforts is continually true--breaking one record after another.
In tune with that legacy, a group of 20 hand-picked contracting officers issued 190 Small Business Innovation Research contracts worth a combined total of approximately $73 million in a little over one week during an event called Pro Bowl at AFWERX Austin from Feb. 25 to March 2, breaking the previous record of 104 contracts in the same time period.
The team, fondly deemed a “coalition of the willing” by Lt. Col. Jorge Manresa, Air Education and Training Command and AFWERX contracting liaison and Pro Bowl co-mastermind, was made up of active duty, reserves and federal civilian Air Force personnel from organizations like Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Installation Contracting Agency.
“We want to teach the operational acquisitions community how to participate in our accelerated SBIR program, enable them to bring the knowledge back to their units, and then scale this capability to other major commands across the Air Force so they can reap the benefits of cutting edge technology,” Manresa said. “By providing these synergies between different operational and acquisition groups within the Air Force, we can work more effectively to accelerate solutions to many of our needs and bring solutions to the warfighter’s hands in months as opposed to years.”
The group began their quest on Feb. 28 by reviewing submissions for Phase 2 of SBIR topics 18.2 and 18.3 and Phase 1 of topic 19.1.
Following a technical review of each company’s submission by subject matter experts, the contracting team began their own evaluation to ensure each proposal was a commercial solution that had dual-use applicability to the military, was a reasonable price, and that the company met various eligibility requirements to participate in the SBIR program.
“In Phase 1 of the program, we get proof of concepts and, in Phase 2, we’re selecting companies that show a lot of promise in providing us solid prototypes addressing many of the Air Force’s operational level challenges,” Manresa said. “We then down-select them to provide the opportunity to build those prototypes in partnership with our wings, groups, and squadrons across the force.”
In addition to contracting officers from within the AFRL and AFICA ecosystem, AFWERX also enlisted the assistance of 309th Software Maintenance Group computer scientists from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, CON-IT help desk personnel, an AFRL judge advocate, and Headquarters Air Force Personnel Center contracting functional experts.
“Collectively, the contracting and acquisition community can accomplish a lot and really break down barriers of bureaucracy to improve work flows across acquisition stovepipes,” Manresa said. “Just by doing events like Pro Bowl, we emphasize the importance of American ingenuity and collaboration, and how we can use that innovation to bring effective solutions, not only for our military members, but for families across the country.”
After more than one late night hard at work, they achieved their acquisition goals by Saturday, March 9.
“From the first day’s tour of Capital Factory with its open workspaces and free coffee and snacks, I think everyone realized we were here to do things differently,” said Capt. Teresa Elsbree, 7th Contracting Squadron contracting officer and Pro Bowl participant. “We were proving that acquisitions could be streamlined. We ran into challenges every day, but solutions were quickly adopted and the momentum just kept building through the whole week.”
Pro Bowl was an exhibit of Air Force contracting and acquisition capabilities following the start of the SBIR Open Topic program that kicked off in June 2018 as a partnership between AFRL, AFICA and AFWERX.
In comparison to the previous SBIR problem-led approach of posting issues for companies to solve, the open topic team solicits existing commercial products from commercial providers.
“The open topic approach is built to be a platform that connects warfighters with best-in-class technology,” Manresa said. “It is designed to be scalable across the entire Air Force and all career fields for buying best in class space technology solutions.”
Since renovating this process, the team has cut down the time it takes to applying for and be awarded a SBIR contract from an average 160 days to less than 30, with the fastest being completed in 14 days.
“It is no secret that there are an incredible amount of barriers – some real, some perceived – in acquisition processes, and it has unquestionably driven some companies away, and kept others from coming to the table at all,” said John McCanney, AFRL contracting officer and Pro Bowl participant. “If we are able to modernize our processes, lessen the burden on these companies, and implement updated strategies and solutions in our field, we create incalculable opportunities to capitalize on the incredible technologies that are out there at our disposal. We can’t afford to let those opportunities continue to pass us by.”
Examples of companies awarded contracts during Pro Bowl include icon, a robotics organization that can quickly build cement structures for potential use in forward deployed environments, Kubos Corporation, a software company that specializes in space grade flight and mission operations software, and SaltyCloud, a security solutions company that produces workflow automation tools for security and risk teams. If you’re a small business interested in working with the Air Force through the SBIR program, learn more about it here: https://www.afwerx.af.mil/sbir.html