The Pentagon’s prime contractors already have a lot of reasons to partner with small businesses who’ve been working on technologies that solve military problems. But under a new Army program, they’ll have another big one: their bids will get an explicit advantage in future procurements if they partner with those companies.

The new initiative, called Project Vista, is one of several ideas the Army plans to test over the next several years to help the small companies it’s already invested in get across the infamous “valley of death.”

Officials planned to detail them during the annual AUSA conference in Washington this week. Gabe Camarillo, the undersecretary of the Army, previewed the initiatives and the thinking behind them in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network.

As to Project Vista specifically, the basic thinking is that the Army needs better ways to ensure the specific technologies it’s helped fund via its Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs actually make their way into fully-developed weapons systems.

“We felt that the Army needed to do something in addition to help bridge that valley of death, because often, we’ve talked about it only in the context of direct contract awards to small business,” he said. “But that neglects the fact that many of the opportunities available to small businesses are to team with integrators that can marshal together the innovation and the technology that our small businesses provide into a capability that can be used by our warfighter.”

Vista will start as a relatively small pilot program, most likely with some of Army’s smaller dollar-value weapons systems — ACAT 3 and ACAT 4, in DoD acquisition parlance. But the basic idea is that competitors whose proposals include the small business partnerships the Army’s looking for will get higher technical ratings during the source selection process.

Camarillo said no changes are needed to legislation or DoD acquisition regulations in order to implement the program: procurement officials will just need to make clear ahead of time that they’re going to assign higher technical ratings to bidders whose proposals include specific technologies that have already piqued the government’s interest as part of the SIBR, STTR, and other outreach programs.

“We’ll be very upfront to everybody in industry about how we might give source selection credit. We do that today on other things, like where companies can provide additional information on how we can reduce sustainment costs, or proposals that identify critical supply chain issues,” he said. “This just adds another category: for the right program, in the right context, we can incentivize the use of these small businesses. It might help some of these innovative companies bridge the valley of death a little bit better.”

Relatedly, the Army plans to create a separate pot of money to fund SBIR and STTR programs that target the more precise technical questions it’s trying to solve over the next decade or two. That management reserve, under the banner of a new program called “Catalyst,” will include ways for the Army to provide direct investment for technologies that have “fallen through the cracks,” Camarillo said.

“We want to provide some kind of publication that will give participants a little bit more clarity about what critical enabling technologies we’re looking for investment in and what challenges we’re looking to solve,” he said. “Many of them are not a surprise as you look at our modernization priorities today, but I think we’ll certainly have an opportunity to drill that down.”

Meanwhile, to help senior Army officials and individual program managers get a better grip on what already exists in the innovation ecosystem the government’s already helping to fund, the service plans to stand up a new R&D “marketplace.”

“There are some repositories of expertise elsewhere, but none that capture what we’ve already funded within the Army,” Camarillo said. “We want to promulgate that information as wide as possible to our program managers and our PEOs to enable kind of that partnership with industry, in particular with the integrators.”

Separately, the Army is planning another initiative to help its acquisition workforce figure out how much intellectual property the government needs to own from each of the technologies it funds and procures.

That issue has bedeviled Defense procurements for years as the military struggled to find the balance between having the IP rights it needs to maintain its systems over time, without demanding so much ownership that private firms lose interest in bidding on contracts

Camarillo said the Army now plans to stand up its own “IP cell” of experts within the Army’s headquarters. Their main task will be to serve as a resource to procurement officials across the service’s program management offices and program executive offices, and advise them on how to structure agreements with industry.

The idea isn’t exactly new: Congress ordered the Defense Department to create a similar “IP Cadre” to serve as an expert group of IP consultants for all military procurements. But the Government Accountability Office reported late last year that DoD had only funded five positions in the new office, all of which were designated as temporary.

Camarillo said the Army is creating its own cell partly because it wants its group of experts to be able to align their advice to the service-specific IP policy the Army published in 2018, which calls for highly-tailored and more “nuanced” procurement approaches.

“There are ways to have tailored approaches to IP that are appropriate for each individual developmental program, and that are specifically important to each set of technologies that are being developed,” he said. “So the idea here is to not rely on a small cell across the department, but to develop our own cadre of expertise. And that will help us in a number of ways. First and foremost, as we are looking at more focused use of our existing small business innovation research programs, how can it inform some of those efforts and strategies moving forward? But then, as we tailor program acquisition strategies, we will benefit from having IP expertise in house that will help us to develop those tailored approaches very early on, so that we’re asking for the right amount of IP from industry, not more than what we need.”