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Insights: Contracting from the other side of the table

  • Published
  • By Estella Holmes, Air Force Materiel Command Public Affairs

As a veteran contract negotiator, Amber Pecoraro, a procurement analyst at the Air Force Materiel Command Contracting Directorate, recognized a disconnect exists between startup companies and fulfilling the mission-related needs of the Air Force.

Despite a shared goal of solving national security problems, challenges persist for startups competing with larger, more established companies that have greater resources and experience navigating the defense contracting realm.

To gain a new perspective on the challenges faced by startup companies interested in military contracts, Pecoraro pursued a career-broadening experience through the National Security Innovation Network's Startup Innovation Fellowship Program. Fellowship participants bring a command problem or focus area to work through during the fellowship, gaining new insights from industry they can bring back to their organization. She began a six-week fellowship assignment in May 2019 with startup company Decisive Point in Washington D.C.

Pecoraro’s focus was to better understand the challenges start-up companies face doing business with the government. By seeing some of the challenges first-hand and talking with other startups about their experiences, she hoped to learn better ways of doing business with this key industry segment.

“I got an education while doing this. This is why I thought it was a great fellowship to do. My background is major weapon systems, so this was a complete learning experience for me,” said Pecoraro.

Decisive Point, led by Tommy Hendricks and Eric Horan, partners with early-stage startups and helps them to connect their commercial solutions and innovative ideas to meet government technological needs. As former Department of Defense military and civilian employees, Hendricks and Horan recognized the need to bridge the gap between smaller companies with the ability to innovate quickly to deliver solutions and the DoD desire to get warfighter solutions to the field faster.

Throughout the fellowship, Pecoraro met with Decisive Point employees and other small companies receiving startup support from the organization. The first-person access to these companies helped Pecoraro attain a greater understanding of the challenges and an awareness of how to address some of them.

“The experience really allowed me to empathize with startup companies and smaller businesses, which I think is valuable when trying to work together to get capabilities to the warfighter,” said Pecoraro.

Some of the challenges expressed by the startups ranged from limited access to government space and difficulties in finding funding for innovative design ideas. Many of the small companies were concerned with staying financially solvent given the extended time required to secure a contract and get paid.

Other feedback companies provided was that government requirements were too specific and did not allow them, in many cases, to use innovative products they may have already developed. If there is an opportunity for the Government to maintain close requirement specifications to an already available solution, it can help promote dual-use business strategies for products designed for civilian use, which provides an additional source of funding for continued growth and innovation for startups.

“Providing innovative companies access to programs to teach them how to do business with the government could help address these issues and provides the government greater access to vendors who are passionate about solving national security problems,” said Pecoraro.

Pecoraro mentioned that there are a number of programs available throughout DoD to assist small businesses, but many are not well-known or understood throughout the communities. Programs such as the Procurement Technical Assistance Program and the DoD Small Business programs across the country offer support. In addition, technical accelerators and incubators can be found near large cities, many near military bases. Some offer programs specifically geared to the needs of the DoD.

Additionally, the Federal Acquisition Regulations encourage collaboration with industry partners, said Pecoraro. Her participation in the fellowship is one way AFMC is looking towards non-traditional pathways in accordance with the FAR to bring critical skills and new technology into service through acquisition and contracting.

“If acquisition teams can understand the problems its customer faces and collaborate better with industry partners to identify solutions in the requirements definition and market research stages, then we can better ensure we are buying the appropriate solution to meet the warfighters needs in the command and throughout the DoD,” said Pecoraro.

Pecoraro paricipated in the National Security Innovation Network’s Startup Innovation Fellowship Program and produced a two-part podcast highlighting her experiences.