WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Contracting, financial and technical personnel from across the Air Force awarded more than 160 contracts to small businesses valued at $58 million during a five-day Pro-Bowl Sprint led by the Air Force Research Laboratory at the AFWERX Innovation Hub in Austin, Texas Feb 25 to Mar 1.
Twenty-five professionals from Wright-Patterson, Kirtland and Eglin Air Force Bases as well as from AFRL’s Information Directorate in Rome, New York and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in Arlington, Virginia participated in the Pro-Bowl Sprint, an exercise aimed at streamlining and enhancing the contract award process.
As is customary in similar sporting events, contracting chiefs selected team members based on their achievements.
Kim Yoder, AFRL’s deputy director of contracting, said that she drafted “highly motivated, adaptable and enthusiastic” people for this intense effort.
“I knew we had a lot [of work] on our plate,” said Yoder.
The Pro-Bowl Sprint was the third in a series of exercises aimed at streamlining the award process and making it simpler for small businesses to work with the Air Force. Yoder said the overall effort was an evolutionary process with the team experimenting with new business practices to see which ones led to process efficiencies during each sprint.
The ultimate goal is to scale these efficiencies out to other parts of the Air Force so they can benefit from the lessons learned, Yoder said.
Kristina Croake, an AFRL contracting officer with Small Business Innovation Research experience, participated in the planning, coordination and execution of the Pro-Bowl Sprint. Croake said that significant pre-work occurred in the weeks prior to ensure the entire operation ran smoothly. Contracting officers created standardized documents while financial specialists created the purchase requests for every award.
“We loaded funding into the correct systems, obtained certification and verified acceptance,” Croake said. Spreadsheets captured real-time data so that contracting officers/buyers could complete the award process.
The Pro-Bowl Sprint gathered all the necessary expertise into one room including the evaluators, contracting officers and financial specialists. Procurement analysts, legal counsel, information technology assistance and technical personnel provided on-site, real-time support.
Dan Hicks, an AFRL financial manager, described the atmosphere during the Pro-Bowl Sprint as full of positive energy.
“Everyone there was goal oriented and excited to be a part of the team,” said Hicks.
Ryan Helbach, AFRL chief intrapreneur, said that this close collaboration enabled team members to address questions and resolve issues in real time. The team members also relied on one another as they tested out a new contracting software platform and provided feedback to system developers.
Within the SBIR Program, a small group formed in 2018 to improve the award process for SBIR contracts.
Helbach said that historically, “evaluations and awards have typically taken up to six months to complete.” Helbach said that the group formed to revolutionize the existing approach so that the Air Force could leverage commercial technologies that meet government needs. Industry is accustomed to a simpler, faster turnaround and SBIR needed to make their processes friendly and more accessible to outsiders, according to Helbach.
After the group outlined ideas to shorten the award process, they organized a sprint to test out their theories. The Air Force SBIR/Small Business Technology Transfer program office introduced a new open topic concept that generated a much higher response from the small business community. Rather than offering a fixed, predetermined topic with set requirements, the SBIR office issued a Request for Proposals seeking open innovation, dual-use technologies.
The corresponding application process offered reduced reporting requirements, shortened technical durations and requested slide decks instead of lengthy, formal proposals.
In July 2018, the team conducted its first sprint and awarded 52 contracts in 50 days valued at $2.5 million. Helbach attributes this accomplishment to the simplified proposal requirements and streamlined award process.
After sharing this achievement with the Department of Defense, the team received a challenge from Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Dr. William Roper. Within months, they completed a second sprint that far exceeded Dr. Roper’s expectations by awarding 104 contracts in 40 hours valued at $7.25 million.
After the first two exercises, the group organized the Pro-Bowl Sprint as a capstone event that also served as the final preparation for the first-ever Air Force Pitch Day held in New York City Mar 6.
During this showcase event, 59 small businesses pitched technologies to a panel of top Air Force officials. The Air Force signed 51 contracts on the spot worth $158,000 each with a total value of $9.25 million.
These awards secure research and development work pertaining to secure communications, down-range battlefield operations and digital technologies. To pull off these awards, the team auto-generated many of the necessary documents and developed a one-page contract. Contracting officers used government purchase cards to issue immediate payments to contractors from 24 different states.
Yoder said that the work accomplished during the earlier sprints ensured the successful execution of Pitch Day.
“We worked out the glitches and gaps ahead of time to ensure all elements of the process ran smoothly,” said Yoder.
Helbach said that efforts for continuous process improvement remain ongoing, even with the completion of Pitch Day. To build upon the success of the earlier initiatives, the team is planning to conduct a fifth sprint in July.
Numerous organizations participated in the sprints including AFWERX, Air Force Contracting, the Air Force Personnel Center, the Air Force Installation Contracting Agency, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Law Office, Air Force Materiel Command, the 309th Software Maintenance Group from Hill AFB and the 11th Wing Contracting Squadron from Joint Base Andrews.