Uncle Sam Wants Alabama’s Tech Community

By: Erik Olbeter

Uncle Sam wants you.

More than 75 years ago, that iconic recruiting poster rallied hundreds of thousands of young Americans to join the Army and fight in World War II.

Today, the U.S. military has a similar recruiting effort under way.  But rather than aiming at 18-21-year olds, this campaign is targeted at Alabama’s technology community.

The Pentagon has put out this call because its lead in key technologies is shrinking and it is sounding the alarm.

For example, Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Lord testified before Congress last year that, “The current pace at which we develop advanced capability is being eclipsed by those nations that post the greatest threat to our security, seriously eroding our measure of overmatch.”

The Pentagon knows that it can’t keep our current lead without the support of America’s technology companies. And this represents an opportunity for Alabama’s technology community to show off its prowess.

Working with the military has had its drawbacks in the past – and the Pentagon knows it.  The Pentagon’s acquisition rules are legendarily byzantine. This has often excluded small, innovative companies from bidding on contracts.

But the Pentagon has taken steps to minimize these problems in recent years.

One way that the military has sought to reach out to the technology community is through the use a different set of acquisition rules, known as Other Transaction Authority (OTA). Developed in the 1950s to help the United States win the space race with the Soviet Union, OTA addresses the many of these problems.

OTA works by speeding up the lethargic government acquisition timetable. It helps the Pentagon operate on a technology company’s timetable, rather than on government time. In most cases, contracts are awarded allowing technology companies to develop technology prototypes over a period of weeks or months as opposed to years.

OTA also simplifies that government’s acquisition rules. The Pentagon has learned that most technology companies cannot or will not participate in a process that is not inexpensive, easy or fast. OTA sidesteps most of these rules, making it easier for nontraditional government contractors to participate in the process.

As a sign of how serious the government views its innovation problem, the value of contracts let under OTA has increased significantly in recent years. In a recent tally, the Department of Defense reported that the military services spent nearly $21 billion on 148 OTA agreements between 2015 and 2017.

The government has also increased the use of follow-up authority. This process allows a company to move from prototype to production for up to two years while the government moves the program to a more traditional contracting process.

Finally, the government has taken steps to reach out to non-traditional suppliers, namely small and medium sized technology firms.

And Alabama companies have begun to take note.

Recently, the Army awarded a small Huntsville-based company, Geeks and Nerds, a $13.6 million OTA contract for technology to help train helicopter pilots to fly in rain and dust. The company will create sensors that mimic less than optimal conditions. This will allow pilots the opportunity to improve their flying skills in the safety of simulators, rather than learning by flying in degraded conditions. If the Pentagon approves of the work, the company will have the opportunity next year to build more of the sensors in a much larger government contract.

This contract is just one example of opportunities that are available to Alabama-based companies.

What is needed is more companies, such as Geeks and Nerds, to seek out opportunities that the federal government has and put out to bid.

Uncle Sam has put out the call. Will other Alabama companies respond?

Olbeter is the Chief Operating Officer of the National Security Technology Accelerator, an Arlington, Va.-based non-profit company.