The need for rapid adoption of technologies often poses challenges for the US government; Ken Storey describes a Central Florida-based technology accelerator designed to change that.
Tim Greeff first realized the need for streamlined prototyping and procurement methods when he was having some drinks with some combat vets, and the conversation turned to the need for better technology in the field.
The founder and CEO of the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL) told MS&T, “I really started to learn about how bad the technology acquisition was, particularly on the frontlines in Iraq or Afghanistan and places where we were. My own background is in energy, and that’s sort of the tech network I had at the time. So decided that we can probably start an organization to help bridge this gap. Within a month or two of getting started, I learned that acquisition was a big part of that. The contracting mechanisms traditionally that the government uses are so dated and complex.”
This complexity, according to Greeff, is partly to blame for the decline in innovation required to keep pace with not only the nation’s adversaries but also with the basic commercial marketplace.
NSTXL was founded in 2014 and has been developing a network of technology companies and minds from across the nation. They gained international attention in late 2020 when the Space Force awarded them a 10-year, $12-billion Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) contract. While that project brought with it some short-lived scrutiny of NSTXL and the Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) contracting mechanism overall, Greeff remains committed in his belief that their unique public networking approach will drive much-needed innovation in addressing government-led opportunities.
[Editor’s Note: Originally launched in the 1950s and resurrected in recent years, OTAs enable contracts outside the standard Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) process to attract nontraditional defense contractors, leverage commercial advancements, and expand the industrial base while reducing risk through collaborative prototype iteration. Contract vehicles via the NSTXL platform are authorized by 10 US Code § 2371b, Authority of the Department of Defense to Carry Out Certain Prototype Projects. The government is now able to transition a successfully completed prototype into full-scale production without additional competition.]
The reduced capacity for innovation meant “stuff that was getting delivered to the government was actually outdated.” But Greeff then found a solution via OTAs. Using NTSXL networks as a conduit for creativity thanks to their wider reach, especially among companies and individuals not typically involved with DoD contracts, Greeff has built a powerhouse of an OTA, what is now one of the leading DoD OTA contracting channels.
Using distinct OTAs, NSTXL can ensure challenges are met in a quick fashion. This is thanks in part due to the cross-pollination the group as a whole is designed around. For Tara Kilcullen, the Training and Readiness Accelerator (TReX) Director, this collaboration is part of what attracted her to the group. “What I love about it is it truly is a diverse organization. And the OTA itself is diverse.”
“We have three active OTAs right now,” she explained. “One is focused on space. One is focused on hypersonics with the Navy. The training and readiness accelerator, while it’s an Army-owned contract at PEO STRI [Program Executive Office - Simulation, Training and Instrumentation], its readiness component opens it up into all kinds of avenues.”
Kilcullen points to a recent project where, once SOCOM [United States Special Operations Command] was ready to move on from a project, a different agency picked it up. “The project kept going but underneath a different government entity so that they can continue prototyping for new requirements,” explained Kilcullen, adding, “I thought that was really awesome.”
The teamwork that comes from joining various companies together doesn’t come naturally. Greeff explains the partnerships are thanks to a very specific tool the NSTXL uses known as Design Sprints. “We base it on design thinking, and it’s about an engagement between industry and the government programs early on. Define what the problem is, and then allow industry to inform the art of the possible for a solution.”
This tool, according to Greeff, also means more opportunities for new companies to compete. “The traditional federal acquisition is so complicated that you end up essentially with this oligopoly of companies that have the size and the tolerance for spending countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars per proposal, sometimes just to get it in, and then they can also stand to not hear back for months, not to get paid for months. So by combining the industry engagement with these rapid acquisition vehicles, NSTXL was the first to create a full acquisition strategy from ideation to delivery of prototype, where industry is engaged every step of the way. And we’re also greatly increasing the number of participants so that you increase competition.”
Innovation is at the heart of the open model NSTXL uses. “Our standard baseline is that we will promote the problem statements publicly… If you have a closed network and base membership off of exclusivity, you try to make it too exclusive. That is the opposite of innovation.”
While various OTAs under NSTXL are found throughout the US, the Orlando base isn’t by chance. With their office a short walk from PEO STRI and a short drive from the Space Coast, NSTXL has also benefited from the technology companies that the region has developed around its tourism sector. “I’ve actually had a lot of conversations with folks that focus on that AR/VR/XR type of environments for theme parks, and they’ve reached out asking how they can get involved with the government. They’re not sure how, and OTAs help them get involved because it makes it easier,” explains Kilcullen. “They don’t have to have those large systems in place to work with the government. We do that for them. And we help them communicate. We’re hoping to see a lot more of those [tourism sector] folks because it’s super cool technology that they’re advancing all the time.” This type of novel approach can be seen in an Electronic Warfare Test solutions RWP [Request for White Papers] that is ongoing via TReX.
Greeff acknowledges the government doesn’t have the best record for innovation, but he believes that may change. “There’s a misperception out there that the government doesn’t tolerate risk. That’s actually not true. If you just talked about risk in general, maybe. But when you’re talking specifically about technology development, we view it in its lifecycle. And so yes, trying to build new commercial technologies has risks, and it’s not risk the government is well set up to handle. But the riskiest part of tech development is actually basic research. A lot of it is funded by the federal government. And so, the government does have a tremendous amount of risk at the basic research level. But at some point, there needs to be a handoff. And this is where we’ve tried to show how it can be done at different points throughout the technology development lifecycle. The purpose of the organization is to help bridge the technology gap that we saw increasing between the private sector and the government.”
Beyond the TReX solutions, NSTXL is currently seeking proposals in hypersonics, expendable uncrewed maritime systems, and multiple SpEC prototypes.