Buy Lines: In developing, delivering new technologies, let's agree to agree

Bob Dickson

Commercial spending for research and development has increased substantially in recent years. For every federal dollar invested in this area, business now invests about $2. As a result, the private sector now plays an increasingly important role in developing new technologies and influencing acquisitions for some of the most critical federal programs.

An effective acquisition framework can accelerate the transition of these technologies from early research to deployment. Taking advantage of Defense Department experience in this vital area, the enabling legislation for the Homeland Security Department provided similar acquisition authorities to promote rapid transition of new technology.

How can the government best use these authorities to reap the benefits? Let's look at a number of trends.

In many cases, there are commercial solutions to the government's technology needs. The government's challenge is to increase partnerships with industry to gain access to them. Through partnerships, industry could truly understand government requirements and possibly share its resources to develop the technologies.

The Defense Department recognized these challenges and created "The Manager's Guide to Technology Transition in an Evolutionary Environment." It features specific examples highlighting the success of technology transition efforts, including laser radar tracking technology, the multipurpose processor and magnetic resonance imaging. In each case, major defense and commercial benefits are being realized.

While the guide was developed for defense agencies to outfit the warfighter with the latest technologies, the transition concepts apply to all agencies as they face their own technology challenges.

Technology transition agreements are being made in a variety of ways. While sometimes the legislation authorizing a science and technology program may require a specific type of business arrangement, for many the agency would negotiate an agreement like any other. Agencies have the discretion to select from several business arrangements.

For example, agreements may be done via contracts, grants or cooperative agreements, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, and technology investment agreements via "other transaction authority." This latter option is authorized for use within the Defense Department and under similar authority for the DHS. An additional authority was provided under the Defense Appropriations Act to authorize the use of venture capital funding.

Recognizing industry's interest in protecting intellectual property rights, such as patents, copyrights and trademarks, the government is beginning to take a more reasonable approach to negotiating contract terms with commercial companies.

Some examples include flexibility when negotiating patent rights and using performance-based acquisition strategies that may obviate the need for such rights. Such practices will provide more advantages -- and more opportunities -- for commercial industries to collaborate with government on technology development.

To encourage commercial-government partnerships in the development of anti-terrorism technologies, Congress enacted the 2002 Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technology Act, also known as the Safety Act. The act caps corporate liability on technologies that have been approved by DHS as "anti-terrorism technologies."

Business incentives can be used to expand access to commercial developers and their technology. A cash incentive could be a milestone payment for completing an observable technical event. A powerful non-cash incentive is giving ownership of intellectual property without government licenses, or negotiating fewer government intellectual property rights.

Technology transition issues are complex, but they are evolving to encourage a broader role for industry in the government marketplace. The initiatives under way are changing the relationship, hopefully in a way that will benefit both while serving the national interest.

Bob Dickson is vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., Chantilly, Va. His e-mail address is bdickson@acqsolinc.com.

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