Polaris protests raise more questions about mentor-protege joint ventures

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This $15 billion government-wide technology contract and a second with a $50 billion ceiling all focus on the same issue.

A pair of companies have gone to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims with protests against the terms of the solicitation for the $15 billion Polaris technology solutions contract.

One key aspect of those challenges involves how agencies allow small businesses to use the experience and capabilities of their partner in a mentor-protégé joint venture in proposals.

Polaris is a small business set-aside contract with multiple tracks, including one general and several others for socioeconomic categories.

VCH Partners LLC and SH Synergy are arguing the General Services Administration is wrong to limit the amount of relevant experience projects the team can submit. Their filings claim that for Polaris, the protégé must submit at least one relevant experience project of its own or from the mentor-protégé joint venture.

In other words, all the experience can’t come from the large business mentor.

The protestors also are complaining that GSA has limited mentors to just one protégé. Most mentors have more than one protégé because the pool of mentors is limited, VCH and SHS say.

VCH and SHS are claiming GSA is being too restrictive because mentor-protégé joint ventures are controlled by the protégé, which must own at least 51% of the venture.

SHS and VCH believe they are being shut out because their mentors have other protégés, so they cannot bid on Polaris.

It was interesting to read these filings because it appears GSA’s approach to mentor-protégé joint ventures is different than how the National Institutes of Health has approached the $50 billion CIO-SP4 contract for IT products and services.

NIH has not put limits on the mentor-protégé bidders, which has drawn the ire of other small businesses and multiple protests from them. But GSA has put down some limits for Polaris.

All CIO-SP4 protests are currently at the Government Accountability Office, but I’m wondering what the impact of the Polaris case at the Court of Federal Claims will be.

Remember that the Court of Federal Claims has greater authority to enforce bid protest rulings than GAO.

A court ruling on the role of mentor-protégés should impact GAO’s decisions, or it could drive the CIO-SP4 protestors to go to the court as well.

Bottom line: it appears the government as a whole still has work to do on clarifying the role mentor-protégé joint ventures should play in procurements. Should it have limits or none?

Right now, it seems we have two contracts with two very different approaches.