DARPA launches new program to let small innovators behind the classified curtain

DARPA thinks security clearance issues are keeping a vast array of innovative companies from solving the government's biggest problems. The agency thinks it has...

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For a lot of would-be defense contractors, the world of classified contracts is a bit of a Catch-22. You can’t get classified work without a security clearance, and you can’t get a security clearance without a contract that demands classified work.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is looking to solve that problem with a new initiative it calls “BRIDGES.” The basic idea is to give small firms a chance to show they’ve got the technical acumen or creativity to solve the sorts of problems DARPA’s working on in the classified arena. If it looks like the answer is yes, the agency itself will sponsor them for a security clearance.

Greg Kuperman, the DARPA program manager heading the BRIDGES effort, said it sprang from a recognition that an extremely sizable percentage of U.S. innovation base could, in theory, be figuring out the answers to the agency’s toughest R&D problems, but cut out of the process solely because of clearance issues.

“They’re new startups, really passionate folks, but they’re not DoD companies. And the challenge is I can’t even express to them what our real problem is so that they can go think about it, because it’s classified,” Kuperman said in an interview. “We’ve been kind of dancing around this for over a year, and finally I said there’s got to be a better way.”

The precise mechanics of exactly how BRIDGES — short for “Bringing Classified Innovation to Defense and Government Systems” — will work are still being ironed out. The agency plans to issue a draft solicitation in the coming weeks to gather companies’ feedback on its initial plans.

But as of now, DARPA envisions running the project through a government-operated consortium, most likely with administrative help from a non-profit organization or federally-funded research and development corporation (FFRDC). Inside that consortium, officials will be able to reveal classified information, and the agency wants to keep the administrative cost of admission very low. Firms will just need to make a convincing case, via a short whitepaper, that they can solve problems in a particular topic area DARPA’s identified.

If, in the agency’s judgement, they’ve made their case, DARPA will start the process of bringing them into the consortium where they can see the nitty-gritty classified details and start to work on the problem.

Vendors will still need to get through the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency’s facility security clearance (FCL) process, which takes between three and six months. But DARPA will sponsor that clearance. And that FCL is key to the entire process, Kuperman said.

“A lot of these small companies already have hired people that have Top Secret clearances in anticipation of trying to do government work. The problem is without a facility clearance — and without a need to know — I can’t read them into my special access programs or give them sensitive compartmented information,” he said. “But as soon as [their company has] a facility clearance, I can then, overnight, turn them on to those different things. So we can onboard those folks immediately. And if you have people who are not cleared, they will typically have their clearances submitted simultaneously, and hopefully in three to six months, they can pop out with at least a secret clearance.”

Kuperman said he hopes to eventually turn BRIDGES into a governmentwide model for how to let small, innovative companies behind the security classification curtain.

For now though, it’s a pilot program. DARPA plans to run the pilot for the next two-and-a-half years; the companies it picks for the consortium will get a minimum of $50,000 each year, aside from whatever contracts follow from the work DARPA might award on specific projects.

It will start with roughly a half dozen firms, and will focus on a handful of topics DARPA will use to test the process. The agency hasn’t yet published formal notices to disclose the areas in which it plans to call for whitepapers, but Kuperman said next-generation antennas, cyber defense and space systems are among the topics under consideration for the pilot.

“To me, it’s going to be about where we see advances happening in the commercial world that haven’t penetrated the DoD world yet. By the time the DoD market gets around to it, they might be five or 10 years old, and I don’t want to wait that long,” he said. “We’re making it very flexible and very easy [for DARPA program managers] to issue different topics. It’s meant to bring on people in a rapid fashion, these are not meant to be big bureaucratic exercises. And so if some program manager says, ‘Hey I really think I want to do next generation propulsion for spacecraft,’ in a week or two, we can have that topic area down and start getting in solicitations from companies who might be able to work in that area.”

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