Navy putting emphasis on faster, more productive SBIRs

The Navy’s small business numbers are trending upward, and it wants to keep it that way to increase the number of new ideas coming into the service. To do that it’s shortening its small business innovative research process, and is attempting to get more of those technologies into production.

“We’re really pushing hard on increasing the agility of our small business innovation research program (SBIR),” James Geurts, assistant Navy secretary for research, development and acquisition, told reporters Tuesday in National Harbor, Md. “We’ve reduced the requirement in terms of proposal length by 75% and we are looking at reducing the timeline to get to actual contract award by that amount.”

Geurts said to get those reductions the Navy looked at internal processes. The idea falls under the Navy’s broader NavalX initiative to make the acquisition process more agile.

“Many of our barriers are self-inflicted and culturally reinforced,” he said. “You’ve heard me talk about scraping the barnacles and really challenging ourselves to ensure any process time we have is adding value.”

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The Navy’s work with SBIRs doesn’t stop at the initial contract though. SBIRs are grants for research and development, not for production, and the Navy wants results.

The service can award SBIRs, but they need a place to go to mature into an actual product sailors can use with an initial production contract. Geurts said the Navy is spending a lot of time identifying a need for a SBIR, and figuring out how to rapidly transfer a successful SBIR into a fielded program.

Obviously, not all SBIRs will make it big and some will die in the valley between research and development and actual production.

The Navy is thinking about what success means in terms of taking risk, while not wasting taxpayer funds on too many technologies that will never develop.

“Success to me looks like we are as efficient as we can be in generating ideas and evaluating ideas,” Geurts said. “It looks like getting our iteration speed up and our iteration costs down. I think we fail when we have cost imposing steps in the process that don’t add value.”

Geurts said it’s the Navy’s responsibility to sort out the parts of the process that protect the taxpayer and sailor and the parts that are duplicative and burdensome.

Geurts said failures in SBIR aren’t total failures, though.

“While the SBIR itself may or may not go forward, that doesn’t mean it didn’t add value,” he said. “It may have made us think about a requirement in a different way. It may have challenged our way of thinking about an operational problem. SBIRs can be successful in a lot of ways, it can get a new startup familiar with how to work with the Defense Department.”

The Navy is trying to bring in more small business to shake up the status quo and bring in more ideas to the service. The Navy contends that in near-peer competition, the service will need novel technologies that give the United States the edge over China and Russia.

In 2019, the Navy beat its big goals for small business.

“Our small business rate was about 18.3% and that represents about $16 billion,” Geurts said. The Navy as a whole awarded $117 billion in contract obligations in 2019. “That’s above the goal. We had a goal of 14%. I think that’s important because we get some great innovation from our small business providers.”

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