U.S. Special Operations Command’s (SOCOM) top acquisition official said Monday he would like to see a pilot program that doubled interest in the command’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) opportunities scaled across the department.

Jim Smith, SOCOM’s acquisition executive, told reporters the program has led to reducing the timeline for delivering SBIR-related prototypes by over 60 percent and was in response to hearing from several vendors that the pace of getting involved in such innovation projects was too slow.

Jim Smith, USSOCOM’s acquisition executive

“We were seeing that some niche, non-traditional industry partners, particularly in the artificial intelligence space, were saying, ‘Hey, I’m a small business. I simply can’t wait six months for you to pay me for a white paper. Or, I simply can’t wait 18 months for you to pay me for a prototype,’” Smith said. “We’ve communicated that we believe the results are very successful and we believe this is a model that could be scaled to the remainder of the Department of Defense.”

Congress granted SOCOM more flexibility to adjust the set rules for SBIR programs run through its SOFWERX innovation hub in order to move “at the pace of commercial industry.” 

The pilot program was limited to $2 million and is currently set to end in September, according to Smith 

“That’s not a lot of money. It’s enough money to get started. I think we were able to use some other people’s money as well to deepen the pot a little bit,” Smith said. “If you can give me a white paper in three weeks, I’ll pay you for your white paper in three weeks. If you can get me a prototype in three months, I’ll pay for your prototype in three months.”

Bill Innes, SOCOM’s deputy director for acquisition, said Monday at the National Defense Industrial Association’s virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference the command is looking to bolster partnerships with small businesses on a range of new capability initiatives, from next-generation mobility to human performance optimization (Defense Daily, May 17). 

Smith said he could see entities such as the Army Applications Laboratory leveraging a similar authority, adding that the services should promote SBIRs as an opportunity for start-ups to “commercialize their work.” 

“It’s important that the vendor, the small business in this case, retains their data rights so that they can go off and do something with this product, whether it’s in the commercial space or in the government space,” Smith said.