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SOFWERX's "Combustion Chamber" of Innovation.

Recent years have seen increasing reliance by the Department of Defense (DoD) and Congress on innovations by small businesses and nontraditional suppliers and the use of prototyping to better field solutions for warfighters' dynamically changing needs. DoD's 2015 Better Buying Power Initiatives included the following tenets:

* Remove barriers to commercial technology utilization.

* Increase the use of prototyping and experimentation.

* Increase the return on and access to small business research and development.

In an August 2016 press release, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, said: "The push to fund more experimentation and prototyping of weapons is not only an important step in simplifying and reforming the acquisition process, it is essential to our security, helping us keep pace with our adversaries, and maintaining the United States' technological superiority on the battlefield."

In a nondescript Ybor City office building in Tampa, Florida, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Acquisition Executive James "Hondo" Geurts is doing just that at a place called SOFWERX, which was created through a Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA) with the nonprofit Doolittle Institute to facilitate intermediary services between Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (SOF AT&L) and industry, labs, academia and citizen-scientists. On any given day, representatives from small businesses, academia and citizen-scientists can come in off the street and into the approximately 10,000-square-foot facility. Here they will exchange ideas and information with SOF representatives and warriors to create what Geurts calls a "combustion chamber" for innovative solutions to SOF warriors' needs. He believes that "as the military gets smaller and smaller, there is a much smaller percentage of the community that understands the military--they want to help, but don't know how." And that is where SOFWERX comes in.

In his May 2, 2017, testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, USSOCOM Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas described SOFWERX: "There we have the opportunity for a collision of acquisition types, technologists and, most-importantly, operators. You will find very current operational individuals who have the problem-solving ideas and ethos that's then married with academia, technologists and acquisition types so we can rapidly consider alternative sourcing, alternative problem-solving methods and really get to the crux of the matter of providing enabling technology to our force."

Welcome to SOFWERX

We recently flew to Tampa, visited SOFWERX and talked with Geurts about his vision, as he put it, to "facilitize the method to push out an idea and better inform the acquisition process." SOFWERX uses myriad events to achieve this vision. Among those are:

* OPENWERX competitions

* Tech talks

* Rapid prototype events and tech sprints

* Capability collaboration events

* Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach

* Technology and industry liaison officer (TILO) and small business meetings

One of the many ways SOFWERX fosters innovation is through OPENWERX competitions. SOFWERX issues open invitation challenges to meet specific needs as a "competition for cash prizes." A recent example was provided on June 1, 2017, when the competitors for the Jump the Dog--Canine Oxygen Mask for High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) competition completed their presentations. Each competitor was asked to design a system capable of providing 100 percent oxygen on demand for canines during HAHO's 15,000- 35,000-feet parachute jumps. Prizes ranged from $6,000 (for first place) down to $2,000 (for third place). Companies as large as Lockheed Martin Corporation and as small as local machine shop Tampa Technik competed to prototype solutions for this need. After the judging was completed, Lockheed Martin won first prize with Tampa Technik taking third. Second prize went to Tampa Deep-Sea X-plorers, a privately held citizen-scientists corporation formed for the purpose of competing for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, which also frequently takes part in OPENWERX competitions.

SOFWERX hosts a number of Tech Talks on various topics and in various forums. The week after our visit, SOFWERX sponsored a Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (including Machine Learning), Human Machine Interface and Human Machine Co-Evolution Symposium at Stetson University's Tampa Law Center. The more than 135 attendees represented all four Services, industry and academia. The symposium goal was to foster an appreciation of select emergent technologies and how their rapid evolution will impact, and can be used by, the Special Operations Enterprise. In a prior Tech Talk, SOFWERX hosted Dr. Virgil Griffith, a Dark Web subject-matter expert, and the Elliptic Blockchain Intelligence team for a discussion of the restricted-access Dark Web. Forty-six personnel from the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, SOCOM and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) were briefed on topics including cryptocurrencies and cryptocurrency tools, Dark Web user statistics, and techniques for cyber herding.

We began our tour by heading to the conference room at the rear of the facility, where we were briefed on SOFWERX's history and capabilities. Throughout the summer of 2017, this facility hosted a series of councils (warfighter, interagency and academia) focused on drones, swarms, effects and data science applications in preparation for the Thunder Drone Rapid Prototype Event held from September through November 2017. Rapid prototype events are brief and use experts from DoD, academia and industry to advance technology through proof of concepts in shorts bursts, often using tech sprints. To aid in rapid prototyping, SOFWERX also has a 4,000-square-foot garage located nearby with some machining capabilities known as DirtyWERX.

Later in the day, SOFWERX would host a Capabilities Collaboration Event on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML). Capabilities Collaboration Events are monthly discussions of topics chosen by one of the SOCOM Program Executive Offices. During June's AI/ML event, SOF personnel shared with attendees some of their relevant experiences from a SOF perspective. These AI/ML experts outlined their capabilities and held a discussion aimed at expanding SOF capabilities through the use of AI/ML. That session concluded with a better understanding of both SOF needs and AI/ML capabilities. Future interactions are planned.

As we toured the SOFWERX facility, we met college STEM students working as interns and industry fellows who get the chance to apply their STEM skills in the rapid-paced SOF acquisition environment. SOFWERX employs both the interns and fellows as part of the company's STEM Outreach. SOFWERX also sponsors STEM summer camps and competitions for high-school STEM students.

As we departed from our SOFWERX visit, the TILO was meeting in a small office, just inside the front doors, with the representative of a local small business. That type of TILO and small business meeting is held every Thursday between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the SOFWERX facility. The TILO assists businesses by discussing "How to conduct business with USSOCOM" and the TILO provides the focal point for matching small business ideas or products with the correct USSOCOM acquisition office. A representative from the USSOCOM Office of Small Business Programs (OSBP) also joins these meetings to advocate on behalf of small business opportunities and helps Geurts meet his small business goals.

Throughout our morning at SOFWERX, we crossed paths with U.S. Army officers, SOF warriors, industry executives, small businesses, college student interns and industry fellows. The dynamic mixture of people discussing innovative technologies and their possible SOF applications fills the facility with energy, creating what Geurts described as "a mosh pit" for ideas. As we, in the DoD, seek to build strategies to better capitalize on innovations stemming from small businesses and nontraditional suppliers, SOFWERX provides examples of activities we could incorporate into those strategies.

For more information about SOFWERX, please visit the company's website at:

Ryan and Chang have been professors of Acquisition Management for the Defense Acquisition University's Defense Systems Management College at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, since 2010 and 2008, respectively.

The authors can be contacted at and
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Author:Ryan, Jim; Chang, Joe
Publication:Defense AT & L
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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