Harnessing the power of small businesses for digital transformation

  • Published
  • By Michele Ruff
  • Air Force Materiel Command

Technology moves at lightning speed, so what is new today is outdated tomorrow. As adversaries rapidly develop new capabilities, so must the United States and its allies.

Research is the key. For that reason, the Air Force allots a certain percentage of their research and development budget each year to small business.

Why? Because funding small business to explore innovative ideas and new technology benefits the businesses themselves, the economy, national security and defense. The SBIR/STTR programs encourage domestic small businesses to partner with Department of Defense scientists to engage in research that may have potential for commercial use. Small business can play a key role in bridging the gap between current technology and defense needs.

“Unlike large corporations, small businesses are less encumbered by ‘rules’ and have the ability to be more flexible,” said David Shahady, Air Force Research Laboratory Digital Transformation Program Manager. “They often come up with wild ideas that we can try out at a fracture of the cost.”

To help meet rapid needs in support of enterprise digital transformation efforts, the Air Force Materiel Command Digital Transformation team is leveraging small business talent to improve the acquisition process, with the ultimate goal to deploy weapons systems faster. 

“Small businesses can dedicate their research to exactly what we need,” said Eric Griesenbrock, Lead Integrator for the AFMC Digital Transformation Office. “They can help us find innovations that close gaps that some of the larger corporations are not as interested in exploring.”

Griesenbrock and the digital engineering team worked closely with the Small Business Innovation Research Center of Excellence and AFWERX for an initial solicitation that encompassed nine specific areas including architecture, cloud/high performance computing, cost analysis and contracting, effective infrastructure, security and assurance, integration and decision analysis, linking disparate data sources, tools and integration, and workforce and cultural transformation.

The team received hundreds of proposals and narrowed the focus further at a virtual pitch day last spring--leveraging technology to find new technology. The virtual pitch day proved to be beneficial to both the engineering team and the small businesses who participated.

“We learned that many small businesses liked the virtual format because their entire team could be part of the brainstorming sessions without the huge cost of travel,” said Griesenbrock. “New ideas were generated on-the-spot.”

The effort culminated in the recent award of 29 contracts for a total of nearly $1 billion from companies in ten different states.

“We’re excited that they are working on a process that is uniquely ours,” said Griesenbrock. “They have already begun working with their Air Force customers for what will probably be a two-year effort.”

The Digital Transformation Office team is planning another Collider event in 2022 to help draw more small business interest into the enterprise. Colliders are open business events that drive opportunity and discovery and are often held virtually.

“We don’t have all the pieces together yet, but we expect to engage community, government, business and academia in the near future,” Greisenbrock added.

The end game is to deliver capabilities to our Air and Space Force at ever increasing speed and efficiency by designing, sustaining, and modernizing them in an integrated digital environment.