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By Steve Kelman

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Air Force procurement contests take wing

As blog readers are aware, I have been writing for years in support of the government making greater use of contests as a procurement tool -- announcing a performance objective and a prize for the first successful solution to the problem, where anyone can submit an entry. Aside from being a dramatic form of performance-based contracting, it opens up the procurement process and puts the emphasis on doing good work, not just filling out proposal paperwork. As with every off-the-beaten-path procurement technique, it is not suitable for everything, but like many unconventional approaches, it is underused.
 
I feel strongly enough about this issue that a few weeks ago in this blog, I chided my friend Alan Chvotkin for writing a column that I thought inappropriately discouraged agencies from trying out this idea.
 
Well, I recently discovered that the Air Force -- or more precisely the Air Force Research Lab in Ohio -- has successfully experimented with a procurement contest and is now taking up the technique as an accepted tool in their toolkit.
 
It began with a contest to develop a technology that could stop fleeing vehicles without permanent damage to the vehicle and without harming the occupants. The prize was $25,000. The contest was listed through the private firm Innocentive.com, the leading player that advertises contests (mostly from the private sector) to possible participants.
 
Amazingly, the challenge attracted over 1000 entries. The winner was a retired 66-year-old mechanical engineer from Lima, Peru. His solution involved a remote controlled vehicle that can accelerate up to 130 miles per hour within 3 seconds, position itself under the car, and automatically trigger an airbag to lift the car and slide it to a stop.

The Air Force had originally tried to solve this problem in-house with two small teams competing with each other, without success. Looking for innovative approaches to research, the Lab's Commander came upon a White House memo promoting contests, and he set the process in motion. (This would have been a perfect good-news story if only the lab's contracting folks had come up with the idea, but alas they didn't. 1102's elsewhere in government, take note!)

Intelligently, the Air Force used one of their non-profit consulting advisers to help them develop the terms for the challenge. They were working in unknown territory, and wanted help. This may be a good idea for other agencies trying procurement contests for the first time. They also got help from Innocentive.com, the company that serves as a platform for the contests (or "challenges" in Innocentive-speak).

Interestingly, Innocentive advised the Air Force to lower the prize -- their experience is that challenges that seem to promote a public good get more entries at lower prize levels than ones just being done for companies.

With the success of this contest, the Air Force has now set up a "pavilion" on the Innocentive website, called TecEdge, to advertise their contests. There are now several underway and doubtless more to come. Amazingly, a fairly large proportion of the contests advertised on Innocentive.com are government or public-oriented. NASA has a pavilion, and there are other pavilions called "Global Health," "Environment," and "Public Good."

I briefly interviewed Innocentive's CEO, Dwayne Spradlin, and the company seems excited by the idea of partnering with government -- Spradlin said that he himself has a long-time interest in public policy. He notes that the company has 250,000 "solvers" in 200 countries signed up to respond to the challenges that get posted.

In budget times when government can less and less afford to pay just for effort, we need to be looking aggressively for contracting vehicles -- such as contests and share-in-savings contracting -- that pay for results. Contracting professionals, show your stuff!

Posted on Oct 07, 2011 at 12:09 PM


Reader comments

Tue, Oct 18, 2011 JS

This sounds like the kind of approach the government needs to do more of. I like that they managed to get over a 1000 people to work on this problem and only paid for the solution that solved the problem after the Air Force did a "theoretical analysis" to show that the idea worked. Cool! Anyone who reads the newspaper knows that the problem of non-lethally stopping vehicles has been a issue for U.S. security forces since way before 911. The military has spent millions of dollars on this issue over the decades with varying degrees of success, but it sounds to me like this idea might really work! Remember the Italian journalist who was captured and made hostage by Jihadists? In 2005 U.S. soldiers tried to warn the occupants of a car carrying the freed journalist as it raced toward a checkpoint to safety. The result was that a bodyguard was killed and the rescued reporter was wounded. It sounds to me like the solution they came up with shows real promise of preventing this sort of incident in the future, and we should all be very excited about it. Josh: They didn't say a car had to accelerate to 130 mph in 3 seconds, they said "a small remote control vehicle". Hobbyists build and race small remote control cars that do that kind of acceleration all the time. Getting one of those little racers to drive under a car and deploy an airbag is something the myth busters could do no problem. I assume that the Air Force research lab could do that, otherwise, why would they have given this guy the award money. It sounds to me like what they really needed was a good idea. That's worth a lot.

Mon, Oct 17, 2011

IRT comments above - from the 'Innocentive' site: The Seeker is looking for a viable, sustainable and affordable means of stopping an uncooperative fleeing vehicle (small car or truck) without permanent damage to the vehicle or harming any of the occupants.

To receive an award, the Solvers will not have to transfer their exclusive IP rights to the Seeker, instead, they will grant to the Seeker non-exclusive license to practice their solutions.

This is a Theoretical Challenge that requires only a written proposal to be submitted. The Challenge award will be contingent upon theoretical evaluation of the proposal by the Seeker.

Tue, Oct 11, 2011 Josh Sierra Vista, AZ

I'm going to have to agree with the anonymous poster on 10/11/11. I could have come up with that idea, but how do you design a vehicle, presumably launched from a patrol car, that can accelerate to 130 mph in 3 seconds? That is much greater than "super car" fast. Also, if it is suppose to fit under a car, how would it have enough tire or other surface area to stop a 1.5 to 2 ton car or truck? What about the center of gravity problem? How do you design an airbag that can lift a car or any truck, 3/4 ton and under, with exactly the same balance and NO wheels touching the ground? There are too many problems here for this to be an effective solution in the example given.

Tue, Oct 11, 2011

Before we get all excited, what, exactly, did the Peruvian give the Air Force? Did he provide a working model or just a concept paper? If a concept paper, has the Air Force proven it out? In other words, did the Air Force give a prize for something that actually works? Is it ready to go into production? If not, how much will they have to spend to get it production-ready? I'm not sure that I understand what is so exciting about this. Is it that the Air Force found a way around the FAR Part 15 source selection process?

Sat, Oct 8, 2011 Michelle Shave

What a great step forward Air Force! I often thought of this type of a solution while still working in government contracting. The government would save a tremendous amount of money incorporating these types of incentive programs to encourage creativity and outside of the box thinking.

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