Why tech companies should consider making defense technology
Although the Triangle area is known for its vibrant technology and innovation scene, innovation is taking place across the entire state of North Carolina. For many technology companies, a simple pivot in operations could open them up to lucrative contracts with the federal government.Posted — Updated
In the business landscape of the Triangle, technology reigns supreme. From Raleigh to Durham, including the Research Triangle Park, dozens of tech companies, both big and small, find a base in the region.
Innovation and creative technology approaches are emerging across North Carolina from the coast through the mountains. While many tech companies may not think their products useful to the federal government, there's a surprising amount of opportunity for innovation throughout the federal government.
North Carolina technology companies continue to gain the attention of DoD innovation outreach offices such as the Defense Innovation Unit, Army Applications Laboratory, AFWERX, SOFWERX, and the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology SVIP.
The N.C. Defense Technology Transition Office, or DEFTECH, is a state-funded entity of the N.C. Military Business Center. Through education, outreach, networking, and liaison, DEFTECH enables elements of the N.C. Innovation Ecosystem to address complex national security problems.
"We believe that the key solutions to defense and homeland security problems are right here in what we like to affectionately call the North Carolina Innovation Ecosystem. Innovation is something that you do — it's not a location. Innovation is not isolated to Silicon Valley or any one service," said Bob Burton, the DEFTECH senior manager. "What we do is connect the requirements with those who can fill the requirements, and then help them to be successful in the federal market."
"It's not an easy entry, and that's been one of the problems with small businesses and the federal government in the past. It was a very complicated, time-consuming, and money-consuming operation to get involved with the federal government. This cuts through all of that," said Denny Lewis, director of the NCMBC's DEFTECH office.
The DEFTECH office acts as a unique liaison between the Department of Defense and North Carolina businesses by offering a helping hand through the red tape and identifying areas of opportunity. For many companies, a shot at working with the federal government can be as simple as slightly pivoting their service or product offerings.
Lewis and Burton recently helped a drone company that traditionally uses their equipment to wash buildings. The DEFTECH office suggested outfitting the drones to spray disinfectant in places like stadiums and pop-up hospitals using a persistent antiviral chemical manufactured by another North Carolina company.
With a small change to their business model, they have made themselves valuable to the federal government and provided an essential service to the public, both locally and nationally with their disruptive approach.
"Sometimes folks who are developing something for the commercial market don't even realize that with a little bit of a change, maybe painting it green instead of yellow, it would have direct application to the Department of Defense or Homeland Security," Lewis said. "Take a look at who's innovating in North Carolina and there's plenty of capacity and opportunity. You have the university system, businesses, and public and private partnerships. The federal government is also interested in solutions that have dual commercial use. There's a lot that's happening, and we're wide open for any type of innovation across any type of market."
At First Flight Venture Center in Research Triangle Park, Emil Runge works with the DEFTECH office to help local businesses find opportunities with the federal government. Resources offered by the NCMBC help make Runge's job much simpler than it was in the past.
"That's one of the beauties of the DoD, is there is so much breadth there that if you are a company in the technology space then there is a pretty good probability that you may have some applicability in the Department of Defense space," Runge said. "Now, I can turn to my friends over at NCMBC and say something like, ‘I've come across a company that's creating a really interesting fabric that's able to do something entirely differently than we've thought of before.' Having gotten into that sphere and understanding just how much DEFTECH is doing and how many connections that they have in the DoD world was truly illustrative in terms of their outreach into that community and their knowledge of that ecosystem."
"That, to me, is the value," he finished. "That's one of the great values of the partnership — I don't have to know everything. I just have to know them."
While the DEFTECH office is one of the NCMBC's newer offices, the team has already found the venture to be effective in helping businesses find dual uses and stimulating the state's economy. In western North Carolina, for example, they were able to help a company called Impact Bonding secure and leverage a National Science Foundation Grant to win a funded award from the Army's xTechSearch, based on the company's work bonding dissimilar metals, which has both commercial and military applications.
Additionally, as many companies have recently found themselves with valuable offerings during the COVID-19 outbreak, the DEFTECH office has been proactively reaching out to help.
For example, a Marine Corps Major reached out to the team inquiring about virtual reality training opportunities because, even amidst a pandemic, the military still needs to complete essential tasks such as these. Now, the DEFTECH office is working with a gaming company to pivot their headgear and equipment to create a virtual Marine training zone.
While working with the federal government can be an intimidating venture, the team at DEFTECH works to ensure local businesses have all the resources they need. They regularly offer individualized counseling, webinars, and networking events to help speed along the contracting process and identify any areas of opportunity.
Additionally, the DEFTECH team will review whitepapers and quad charts, which are necessary to highlight capabilities and to be competitive in the federal marketplace.
"You can't guarantee success, but you can improve the probability of it. You can create the connections that will ideally lead to the funding opportunities," Runge said. "We're able to put North Carolina companies in the best position to submit the best possible proposals to improve their probabilities of success. We have a conference room here that is specifically geared to host between 30 and 60-person events so that you can have DoD thought leaders and funding decision makers in the room who are able to interact with the North Carolina businesses."
Moving forward, Lewis and Burton hope to see the North Carolina Innovation Ecosystem grow, and more local businesses making submissions to the federal government — and despite interruptions in the economy, there has never been a better time to act than now.
"The commercial market is severely disrupted, but branches like the DoD and Department of Homeland Security are to defend the nation from all threats, foreign and domestic, at all times. Also, there's 200,000 U.S. military deployed globally in 177 countries, and none of that has changed," Burton said. "What we are seeing is the innovative spirit being awakened in America, and it's fantastic because of the call to action right now, which is to support those on the COVID front lines. We see the timing for companies to get into the government market has never been better, and we wish that more companies would consider selling their innovative solutions to the federal government."
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