Disrupting Acquisition Blog

Reverse-Mapping the Acquisition Valley of Death

Reverse Mapping the Valley of Death

What if, rather than starting with today’s new tech and looking for a future home for it, we started with how we want to look in the future and worked our way backwards?

What if we mapped our way across the Acquisition “Valley of Death” … backwards?

In the past, I’ve advised small businesses to consider SBIRs as a first step in daisy-chaining their way across the infamous Valley of Death, that metaphor for emerging technology’s transition from the Labs to a Program Office. I’ve told small businesses to think long-term, to figure out how to map their way from SBIR I to II to III and other programs like the Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) to insert their technology into Programs of Record or portfolios, and to make those Program Office connections early to find homes for their ideas. I’ve complained that enough Government entities don’t think enough about the long-term when considering acquisition strategies, that they’re focusing too much on an initial brilliant pitch and not figuring out how to guide that idea to fruition.

But what if we did that in reverse? What if Program Offices backed into the beginning of the process, with the help of Labs and innovation hubs? What if we flipped the process and built our own consortium?

One of the favorite bits of advice I’ve heard in my entire life is to look to the future and where you want to be, then figure out the baby steps to get there. That means looking at a goal a year out and evaluating what things you need to have accomplished at that point, and then figuring out what you need to have done in six months, then in three, then in the next month, even the next week.

In others words, working backwards from success or desired end state.

What if instead of starting a little haphazardly with the SBIR process and other available tools, a Program Office started with what they want to look like in five years that they don’t know exists yet because technology is changing fast and who knows what the real world threat will look like in a few short years? How would you back into building a consortium to solve problems you don’t yet know how to write a requirement for?

Let take, for example, the Zombie ReAnimation Program (ZRAP) Office. To my knowledge, there’s no such thing: I’ve made it up as an example…and because I like taunting conspiracy theorists who google that kind of thing. As the new Program Manager for ZRAP, your program’s goal is to build the best zombie out there to serve as an alternate fighting force, and you’ve inherited a newly awarded five-year contract to Zombies R Us to get you there. The problem is, in five years, you will have solved the zombie problems of today and not the zombie problems of five years from now.

If you’re going to keep up and have the best zombie fighters in five years, then you’d better be inserting new ideas into the program or portfolio or at least considering them.   Don’t wait until the contract is up for re-competition or start trying to insert evolving technology four years from now. Acquisition strategy is a living process, not a place-a-checkmark-in-the-box-a-year-before-award-and-forget-it process.

Over the last few years, the term consortium has become intertwined with Other Transactions, but it doesn’t have to be.   It can be a band of contractors organized under one contractor or through one agreement, but it can also be a loose group of players from industry, government, and academia. I used to do this without realizing it, by simply using Associate Contractor Agreements (ACAs) to ensure that all my contractors working on a particular program talked to one another and shared information. They weren’t a consortium as a single legal entity but the intent was there that they be a team focused on creating a better product. With ACA’s, this meant the same “special provision” in each contract, and if we had to pay them to talk/share info, I funneled payment through a single contractor rather than risk duplicating that cost. Not a subcontract–an ACA.

To build your own consortium for better zombies—or whatever you’re acquiring—here are some ideas of where to start and how I’d do it, if possible:

Agile Zombie Pitch Day for SBIR I’s:

Your consortium begins with well-planned, well-used SBIR/STTR funding. Your topic is based on what improvements you might make to zombies over the next five years. You’re looking for the stuff you don’t know exists and for answers you don’t even know you have questions for. You’re able to set up pitch day and award, say, five Phase I SBIR/STTRs as Other Transaction agreements within a couple of months from the time you commit to using this strategy. Each Phase I might be for $50K for three months to accomplish what they’ve proposed, plus one three-month “next iteration” to stretch their research so they can take their ideas beyond the realm of what they think is possible. The OTs are very similar, each with options for a next phase under certain conditions.

Note that you could also set this up at a greater amount or six months instead of three or whatever works for you. You might use purchase orders or contracts. You might tweak in some way I can’t possibly imagine. The point here is not to dictate your structure but to spur your thought process.

You might also invite a venture capital match of Government funds at this or any future point.

Upon successful completion of Phase I—and what constitutes success is defined in the OT—the company can move on to Phase II or Phase III, each awarded as an addendum to the original OT. This is not an automatic progression to a next phase. The small business must still complete certain agreed upon milestones to continue the journey across the Valley of Death, and you must, of course, have funding. You should also include your Intellectual Property (IP) strategy as part of your plan, which will mean negotiating rights/licenses either up front or with each new phase.

Not every SBIR will make it beyond Phase I, or Phase II, if you allow them to enter the consortium at Phase II instead of Phase I. Nor should they transition to a new phase unless they have a future with your program. Maybe they off-ramp to some other program they’re better suited to or maybe they leave the field entirely. Your focus is on the technologies that can successfully keep your zombie upgraded.

In this case, your five SBIR I’s are working on something unique to your program and sharing that information, at least at top level, with each other. They’re not in direct competition, which improves their willingness to share.

Your line-up might look something like this:

Sharp Dressed Zombies, LLC: body armor for zombies (special focus on brain/head injuries)

Rick Grimes & Son, Inc/University of Terminus: parts obsolescence issues

Speed Walker Partners: increased mobility

Good Zzzzs, LLC: maximizing efficiency through reduced down time

Bite Me, Inc: improved dental replacements with a venture capital match

Over the course of the first year, Good Zzzzs, LLC does not show promise and drops out (“off-ramps” from the consortium), though the ZRAP Office does acquire valuable data on how an adversary might deactivate the Agile Zombie by broadcasting lullabies and begins to factor a lullaby scrambler into the body armor.

Sharp Dressed Zombies, LLC jumps directly to a Phase III that includes the lullaby scrambler, and the Grimes/Terminus STTR proceeds to Phase II. Speed Walker advances to Phase II before off-ramping, providing vital information to the makers of body armor so that the Agile Zombie no longer trips over his shuffling feet. Bite Me progresses to Phase III, with a strong likelihood of taking their dual use dental implants to the commercial medical industry.

Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF) for the Agile Zombie:

Planning for filling gaps in the consortium as well as increased funding, you add a topic to the Rapid Innovation Fund BAA. Granted, this isn’t something you’ll benefit from immediately, but by planning ahead, you could be bringing one or two RIF’s on board about the time your Phase III’s are ramping up. You might later have a follow-on to a RIF.

You’ve now added Speedy Feedies, LLC, which, for $3M, can provide answers to how the Agile Zombie will shift its center of gravity to increase mobility. The results of each test are immediately shared with the primary contractor who is able to increase speed to a 20-minute mile, with no more shuffling.

Still gaps in your consortium? Still improvements needed for your Agile Zombie?

Here are a few more ways to on-ramp other consortium members:

Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for the Agile Zombie – ideal for small studies, especially if you leave it open for the life to the program.

Venture Capital/Private Equity firms – encourage partnerships with small business concerns and innovation hubs to expand funding, support, and guidance.

Innovation hubs – every Lab should be joined at the hip to an innovation hub, to include Partnership Intermediary Agreements (PIAs) and Educational Partnership Agreements (EPAs). They’re often aligned to at least one hub (AFWERX, SOFWERX, etc)  or “innovator” organization.  

A 10 USC 2373 solicitation (Procurement for Experimental Purposes) to allow you to try before you buy.

Let’s say BrainFood Inc offers up an implantable device the size of a grain of rice that could link zombie fighters in silent telepathic communication, so you write a contract for 10 to test under the “signal” area of technology under this not-used-enough statute. The results are terrifyingly positive, but you need to take the device in a slightly different direction….

Other Transactions for Prototype allow you to create a repeatable process that may lead to production.

You negotiate an OT with BrainFood Inc to tweak the implantable device so that not only can the zombie fighters communicate but they can communicate and function as a hive mind. Once the prototype is successful, you can contract with BrainFood Inc for production of the implantable devices, which will help to ensure that the Agile Zombie has all the newest upgrades.

Even if you’re not acquiring an army of speedy, swarming, agile zombies, you can use this strategy to infuse your program with the latest technology and work upgrade issues concurrently as a team of industry and academia. Instead of waiting for the game-changers out there to find you, lay the foundation of the bridge across the Valley of Death so they can follow you across to your program.

If you’re a young Contracting Officer or Program Manager who wants to take these ideas to the boss but need to tone down the zombies, here are a couple of articles you can show them instead: “Cross the Valley of Death with Confidence”.

Or, if you don’t have enough zombie references, try Dan Ward’s “Pentagon Issues Rules for the Zombie Apocalypse (Hint: Parody)”

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