The General Services Administration is seeking to add more support to the bridge across the “valley of death” for companies in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Still in its early stages, GSA’s FedSIM program is developing a new contract that would give agencies more direct access to award contracts with small businesses after they have completed Phase III of the SBIR program. Many small firms find that after they have completed Phase III, agencies can’t or will not award them a production contract.

Jim Ghiloni, a group manager at FedSIM, said it’s at that point when the Research, Innovation and Outcomes (RIO) vehicle would come in.

Jim Ghiloni is a group manager at GSA’s FedSIM.

“If we give customer agencies a tool that they’re familiar with Task Order FAR 16, ordering off of a GSA IDIQ, they do it all the time, and say ‘you can use this’ we will take care of all the SBIR legislation, we’ll do all that on the contract side, that would facilitate program officers being able to execute this authority to get those solutions much more rapidly,” Ghiloni said after speaking at an acquisition event sponsored by Washington Technology on Oct. 28. “Because the phase ones and twos are research funds from research offices, the phase three is our program funds from program staff and that is a different world. That’s where that disconnect has been coming in so if we can put a tool in place that will facilitate government contracting officers to use that capability, I think that’s going to be good for the small businesses, good for government.”

Ghiloni emphasized the tentatively named RIO vehicle is just an idea, but one that seems to have legs. He said GSA is conducting market research over the next six months and has already issued a request for information last summer to begin the process.

“We’ve heard a lot of really moving stories in our market research on these great solutions. It is mom and pop companies in a garage in some cases, but they are providing life saving techniques or armor or vaccine-related things that is really interesting stuff and that the government needs access to. So if we can facilitate that we’re doing good things for the American people,” said Ghiloni, who estimated GSA has already spoken with a few hundred companies and expects to speak with several hundred more in the coming months. “Our current vision to be refined and subject to change is that this would be more like a schedule in terms of being always on. If agency has a legitimate requirement, we can very quickly execute a contract for them and they can go out and get that task order and get going. It’s not going to be something that’s one and done every 10 years.”

New life for SBIR

Under SBIR Phase III, agencies can make direct awards to companies, which is what GSA envisions with RIO.

The timing for a contract vehicle like RIO is good as Congress re-authorized the SBIR program for five years in September.

In 2018, GSA tried to bridge the “valley of death” with a pilot program where its Assisted Acquisition Service connected buyers and sellers.

Ghiloni said in fiscal 2022, GSA made more than $1 billion in awards and more than $300 million in obligations through this approach.

But he said RIO potentially will let agencies issue a task order and make their own awards, potentially opening up more opportunities for small businesses.

Other agencies over the years have tried to bridge this “valley of death” for SBIR companies. The Army in 2018 established a specific fund to help program managers integrate innovations from small firms. In October, the Army launched a new initiative, called Project Vista, to test over the next several years ways to help the small companies it’s already invested in get more traction.

Industry research continues into 2023

Over the next six or so months, GSA will continue to do market research around RIO. Ghiloni said he hopes by next spring to issue a draft solicitation for industry feedback.

“We still need to get through the internal GSA business case process and make sure we’re appropriately briefing our management and staff ensure that we’re not doing anything that’s duplicated with other efforts within GSA,” he said “There’s some internal work to do, and that’s appropriate.”

Ghiloni said GSA hopes RIO, or whatever it ends up being named, helps agencies overcome the fear or uncertainty that tends to exist today that may come with moving a company from SBIR Phase III into production.

He said the familiarity with the task order process and using a contract that GSA has vetted and puts faith behind should help convince contracting officers and program managers to take advantage of these innovative companies.