Jeff White, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, discusses the service’s xTechSearch competition to accelerate game-changing technologies by funding innovative small businesses and driving innovation with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Association of the United States Army’s 2019 Global Force Symposium and Exhibition in Huntsville, Ala., where our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Huntsville, Alabama for the Association of the United States Army’s annual Global Force Symposium, the number one gathering of U.S. Army leaders from around the world to talk about the service’s future, its acquisition budgets, and strategy. Industry is here, thought leaders, media and more. Our coverage here is sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS, and we’re positively honored to have with us Jeff White, who is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research, Development and Acquisition. Sir, it’s great seeing you again. Thanks very much for the time.
PDAS Jeffrey White: Thank you. It’s great to be here and it’s great to see you.
Mr. Muradian: So xTechSearch, this was the first time out, $250,000 top prize to the winning company. There are 12 other teams. There’s going to be a second phase of the competition that’s going to be resolved between now and AUSA. Talk to us about the competition and why it’s so important as the Army tries to accelerate acquisition, but also speed technology development at a time of great power competition.
PDAS White: xTech’s important to us, because too often in the Army acquisition and all the services’ acquisition we tend to look at what I call the usual suspects when we go to procure a weapon system or whatever. You look out there, you’ve got eight or nine big integrators, they have a lot of buying power, they have a lot of technology, and they dominate the marketplace. But they’re not the people who come up with the new and the innovative ideas. The really true, new groundbreaking ideas come from these little tiny companies. The big integrators are exactly that. They’re integrators. So we can either trust the integrators to go out and find the exciting new technologies and tell us about it, or more appropriately and a better solution would be that we know about them ahead of time and we tell the big integrators we want some of that. We want you to put that into our weapon systems.
So xTechSearch gives us a platform to go out find those small, innovative companies that don’t have the big proposal writing departments, don’t have the means and the horsepower to participate in traditional DoD RFPs, proposal process, and get their technology in front of us so we can see what it does, we can understand it, and then we can leverage it in our future proposals and weapon systems.
Mr. Muradian: It is a massive search, and absolutely you can see that from the customers’ standpoint, because often the large companies are vested in the solution they have as opposed to potentially a solution you may want.
Talk to us a little bit about this process that you used to try to get those best ideas, how you sift them, and how did you end up picking the winner? $250,000 for a small concern is a lot of money.
PDAS White: We’ve leveraged AUSA, Association for the United States Army. A great partner for the U.S. Army. We work with them to get our message out, and they help us equally in getting our programs and our talking points out. So leveraging AUSA, we went out to the world, if you will, and told all the small businesses we could find that we were interested in their technology. If they didn’t have a pathway to the Army, here was their chance.
So I think we started with around 300 small companies that came in and showed us what they had. From there they were down-selected through a series of gates, first about half, then down to about 50, then down to ultimately the 24, and the 12 winners you saw today. So it’s been a rigorous process.
Again, they were all great companies. Some of them had products that were more relevant to what our requirements were today and that’s where you saw the winners. Of course for the grand prize winner, that was the technology that was most relevant, most mature, and most producible in the technology that we saw as being a definite part of the future of Army acquisition going forward.
Mr. Muradian: What do you think are the cultural keys to getting the whole organism and organization, better engaging with some of these small contractors and small innovative companies? Each one of the services, Dr. Roper and I have talked about it. Hondo Geurts and I have talked about this a little bit. About how do you get these, and also get the visibility from a senior leadership perspective to sort of more frame questions and get that interface and dialogue going? How is that process going, and what are the right cultural ways of thinking about this organizationally so that both sides of that relationship are maximizing the impact?
PDAS White: We’ve got to do it in non-traditional ways. As you know, the traditional way to get into the Army and get into the defense acquisition programs is to respond to RFPs and go through a formal acquisition process on a FAR-based acquisition. As you know, even the major companies can spend millions of dollars getting into those types of programs.
These small non-traditional companies, they don’t have that kind of budget and they don’t have the type of people that understand the rules and the FAR-based regulations in order to compete effectively. So we have to have a lot more of these types of competitions where we draw them in and we bring them into a space where we’re not using our own unique DoD language, our FAR-based contracting rules, and give them an opportunity to show us what they have in a non-FAR-based acquisition and competition process.
I think we need to do a better job in terms of cross-leveling. The Air Force has had some great ideas. I just saw their competition that culminated the other day. I think they wrote them checks right on the spot. And that’s a terrific idea using the impact card in order to do it. We need to look at leveraging that among ourselves. But then I think as a community we need to get together and take the best ideas across the board and leverage those in our future competitions. That’s certainly something that I’ll be taking back to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, to suggest that maybe we can do something at a broader level.
Mr. Muradian: I was going to say, each one of the services have their own competitive things. With Spark Tank, more on the troop side of things in the Air Force, but it did have that, I talked to Dr. Roper about it, but the Pitch Day in New York recently.
So you see a lot of opportunity for the services to work actually more closely together, to be able to push these ideas up so that they get your visibility.
PDAS White: I think any time you break down the stovepipes you’re going to win, right? We see the population that we get by our partners, whether it be AUSA or our contracting community, the various consortiums that produce OTAs and proposals for us. But we can’t reach the whole world. By dividing it up we’re not leveraging the synergy we could get put together.
We also need to leverage those non-traditional contracts. The OTAs we talked a lot about during this forum. That’s a way to get to a small business on a non-FAR-based contract with more commercial terms that they understand and get increased competition into our tech base.
Mr. Muradian: One very last question before you go. Once you pick this idea, right? If it’s a game-changing idea. And a lot of these smaller companies are actually thinking very big, even if they’re very, very small, about how to change the game.
Does there need to be a cultural change in terms of getting that idea and then driving it through a system that may not want to embrace some change? There are the systems you know, the approaches you know, the tactics you know, the strategies you know as opposed to saying hey, wait a minute, guys. This small thing can actually fundamentally change how we do and actually be an empowering device. What’s the sort of cultural leadership change that has to happen to drive and to husband and shepherd some of these capabilities and actually get them fielded, especially if they’re really game-changing? That means breaking people’s rice bowl.
PDAS White: You hit it on the head. Cultural change is hard, right It’s the hardest thing you can possibly do. So we need to set the example at the ALT leadership and embrace these types of new technologies. We need to help our PEOs and our PMs think about the way they do business in a different way. We need to keep hammering them on speed.
I always hold up an iPhone and say how old is your iPhone? Not many people have one that’s more than two years, then you look and say how old is that Humvee you’re riding int? Probably more than two years old.
We need to move at the speed of innovation, not the speed of 1970s industrial era. By pointing it out and by showing them these young innovative companies with the marvelous ideas they have, and getting them to think how would you put this into your program? Part of cultural change is by not threatening them. I’m not going to shut your program down in order to do something new. How do you leverage this technology into your program to make your program better? That’s what gets them excited and gets them thinking about these types of things.
Mr. Muradian: Jeff White, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the United States Army for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Sir, thanks very much. Really appreciate it, and look forward to seeing you back in Washington. Fantastic competition.
PDAS White: Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.