New federal programs seek niche technologies
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Jan 09, 2003
Two laws passed late last year are giving new hope to small companies and new entrants into the federal marketplace that say they have innovative e-government and homeland security-related technologies but have lacked a reliable pipeline to agency decision-makers. The laws call for creating federal programs to review and fund promising technologies. The programs could also help larger companies identify niche technologies from small firms that could be part of a large, integrated solution, industry executives said. "Right now, industry has difficulty pinpointing opportunities and selling solutions with the potential for cross-agency application, since they have to go from agency to agency making their case. What we've done is create a new point of entry on both the e-gov and homeland security sides," said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on technology and procurement policy and a co-sponsor of the legislation. "The goal is to identify businesses that may not generally do business with the government but may have valuable tech solutions, and bring them into the government marketplace," Marin said. Executives at small technology firms said they're encouraged by the new initiatives. "We've had to struggle with making people understand we do exist and we have capabilities. Hopefully, when these [programs] are established ... [agencies] will be aware there are companies that have niche capabilities that can fulfill some of the requirements of the Homeland Security Department," said Craig Hanford, executive vice president of Davis-Paige Management Systems LLC. The Fairfax Station, Va., firm provides counter-terrorism and disaster preparedness solutions. The Homeland Security Act, signed Nov. 25 by President Bush, includes a provision calling for a clearinghouse of information about homeland security-related technologies, and for the issuance of announcements seeking innovative homeland security technologies. A technical assistance team will assist in screening proposals. The act also calls for each agency to conduct market research to identify the capabilities, including those of small businesses and new entrants into federal contracting, that could help defend against or recover from terrorism or nuclear, biological, chemical or radiological attack. The E-government Act, signed Dec. 17 by the president, calls for the administrator of the Office of Electronic Government to issue announcements seeking innovative e-government solutions from the private sector, to be screened by a multi-agency technical team, and recommended by the administrator for federal funding or forwarded to an appropriate agency for consideration. "Our hope is that this program is up and running at the Office of E-Gov in 90 to 120 days. It'll take a little longer at Homeland Security, given the massive reorganization involved there," Marin said. Teams preparing the transition to the Department of Homeland Security, which will include 22 federal agencies, are working to create a process for evaluating the technology proposals. Scientists and other technical experts will evaluate the technologies, and procurement officials will advise on bringing the technologies into government, said Steven Cooper, chief information officer of the Office of Homeland Security. Industry executives said it's particularly important that clear processes for evaluating the technologies be communicated to industry. "I think they are going to get deluged with ideas. There has to be a process that makes sense so that people don't feel they are getting shut out by accident," said Lorraine Lavet, executive vice president and chief operating officer of AeA, a high-tech trade association in Washington. "We hope they will reach out to AeA and groups like us so we can channel people to the appropriate place." The success of the programs will ultimately rest with procurement officials, said Ernst Volgenau, president and chief executive officer of systems integrator SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va. "You could end up with a very big database that nobody uses," he said. "An important criteria will be the intent of the government official when implementing the procurement. If they really are emphasizing innovative solutions, the most creative company or companies presumably will be selected." Volgenau said the programs could also help midsize firms, such as SRA. "Occasionally, we are overlooked because of the natural human tendency to look to multibillion dollar companies when the government has a big problem," he said. "But smaller companies in the $400 million to $800 million range are perfectly capable of solving some of these problems." Executives at mid- and large-size systems integrators said the homeland security clearinghouse could be especially useful in identifying small firms with technologies that can be integrated into an overall solution. "You can only talk to so many folks. Government people can meet with only so many people. It will allow government to have a larger set of solutions to look at," said Wally Kaine, senior vice president of corporate development and homeland defense coordinator for Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego. But no matter how successful the new programs, they won't eclipse the importance of relationships with agency buyers and large federal systems integrators, said Ed MacBeth of ActivCard Inc., a Fremont, Calif., provider of personal identity access cards. "While we are very interested and hopeful to see what these new initiatives bring, I'm not sure they will be a replacement for just hard work," said MacBeth, senior vice president of corporate development and marketing. "All of the large integrators competing for this business ... quickly decide who is going to be a component of their solution. They had better know about you long before that [request for proposal or information]," MacBeth said. "And we have to know when the initiatives are happening, and at the same time be actively contacting the right people to make sure they know we are interested." Market analyst Payton Smith echoed MacBeth's assessment. "Even if they implement an effective [evaluation] system, I still think it's going to be important to develop relationships with integrators so they can present that technology as part of a larger solution," said Smith of Input Inc. of Chantilly, Va. Officials at ObjectVideo in Reston, Va., and Digimarc Corp. of Tualatin, Ore., said they haven't had much difficulty breaking into the federal market, but nonetheless welcome the new initiatives. "We are encouraged by the way they are intentionally seeking small companies with innovative solutions. They are helping lower barriers [to the federal market]," said Scott Carr, vice president and general manager of government programs for Digimarc, which provides digital watermarking components and technologies used in security, identification and brand protection applications. ObjectVideo's software makes surveillance cameras "smarter" so they can "see" and analyze activity in a specified area and then send an alert to security personnel. Users tell the system exactly what to look for, such as a bag left in a room or a person entering a restricted area. "This shortens the timeline for small business to get noticed by the primes," said Clara Conti, CEO of ObjectVideo. Conti said she hopes officials at the Department of Homeland Security also will use existing small business programs. "We'd like to make sure the department is going to [use] small business set asides, mentor-protégé programs and SBIR [the Small Business Innovation Research program]," she said. *Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"There has to be a process that makes sense so that people don't feel they are getting shut out by accident," said Lorraine Lavet, executive vice president and chief operating officer of AeA, a high-tech trade association in Washington.
Henrik G. de Gyor