How Eastern Foundry pushes community as a tool for growing start-ups
- By Ross Wilkers
- Sep 25, 2019
Eastern Foundry wants to be more than just a provider of shared space and back-office support services to startup companies and small businesses seeking to accelerate growth in the federal government market.
The Arlington, Virginia-based incubator is growing its footprint this month with a third hub set to open in Fayetteville, North Carolina within proximity to the Army’s Fort Bragg installation that is the branch’s biggest in the U.S.
Eastern Foundry already has two locations in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City and Rosslyn regions, but has ambitions for more.
“I want the footprint Eastern Foundry to match the footprint of our member companies,” said Geoff Orazem, the firm’s co-founder and chief strategy officer. “Obviously D.C. is the hub in this model, but we need to have spokes all through the country to all the other big ‘gov’ towns.”
“The goal is to have a location next to every big federal epicenter.”
That could eventually include locations in places such as Huntsville, Alabama (Army and NASA) and Tampa, Florida (Central and Special Operations Commands). Regions with a significant Navy presence like Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego could also be in the cards.
Eastern Foundry’s Crystal City location has 27,000 square feet and the Rosslyn site occupies 20,000 square feet. Companies that rent space in either hub have access to each other, which can fulfill the networking aspect so crucial to success in GovCon so they can form partnerships or prime-to-subcontractor relationships.
It is that ecosystem in the Washington, D.C. region that Eastern Foundry wants to facilitate in other areas where the federal government and GovCon have significant footprints, Orazem told me.
“What that presence looks like may vary. Is it going to be a full 20 thousand-square foot floor of a building? For the big places, maybe,” Orazem said, whereas it might look somewhat different “for the smaller towns for the smaller locations.”
Eastern Foundry sees its mission as more than just giving companies a space to work in and also with each other. Close to 170 companies are Eastern Foundry members, the vast majority of whom are small businesses with some from the middle tier.
As Orazem will point out, it is important to think about the nature of the GovCon arena beyond the tools and processes many businesses use to operate in it.
“The government contracting market is such a social activity, (and) winning government contracts is an intensely social activity,” Orazem told me. “The way that you find out the opportunity is going to be coming down the pipe six months from now is a social event.”
Small businesses and other emerging companies without large back-end infrastructure including business development and capture teams can hence find their footing in tracking those opportunities in Eastern Foundry.
“I would argue that we’re one degree of separation through Eastern Foundry’s membership to any company in the ecosystem,” Orazem said.
The Air Force evidently noticed those intertwined connections last year when it awarded to Eastern Foundry a pair of Small Business Innovation Research grants to further develop teaming and solicitation search software.
For both efforts, the Air Force wants to increase competition for contracts and tap into a broader network of companies.
Those grants have let Eastern Foundry “take what we’ve been doing in almost more of a services model, person-to-person, and productize them. So to be able to create the cohesive online curriculum that we think companies need in order to be successful in SBIR,” Orazem said.
The awards might also serve as a tangible example of a government agency formalizing efforts to bring in what are spoken of as non-traditional vendors: a topic that has grown in prominence in conjunction with innovation being more spread out beyond the traditional sources.
Over and over again, reporters including myself have heard federal leaders at events say their agencies need to do more to bring more businesses from the outside into the fold. Many of those companies are startups or other emerging firms in Silicon Valley, but that scope also stretches to other growing tech hubs in Texas or Boston for example.
“I think there has been a broad acceptance and realization that the epicenter of innovation and technological development has shifted away from the big established vendors, who have the bench strength and the knowledge, and frankly the budget, bankroll (and) scale to be able to wait the time that it takes to complete what will eventually become a multi-billion dollar contract,” Orazem said. "If you’re a Lockheed Martin and Boeing, that’s great. It makes sense for you to wait all that time to get a huge pot of money at the end.”
Not true for other companies certainly, and not just limited to small businesses in terms of waiting out often prolonged government procurement cycles that are vastly different.
“If you’re a small business, the most important thing for you to do is to iterate: to be able to get customer engagement and customer feedback so you can iterate your product, refine it, improve it, and then deliver something that really has the product market fit,” Orazem said.
One item Orazem puts high on the list of important things for those so-called non-traditional businesses to have going in is differentiation. That requires more than just being in key priority technology areas for agencies like cloud computing, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.
“I would think first about the differentiation that exists within the customer requirements,” Orazem said. “Start looking at what it is the customer is asking for and then try to line up how many companies I know that could meet that requirement as it’s been articulated. “If there are more than 10 companies that I can think of, I would challenge myself to go deeper into the need.”
Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also find and connect with him on LinkedIn.