The Department of Defense (DoD) utilizes thousands of business contractors every year, who combine to provide technological support, supply chain assistance, and manufacturing to support the department. While a majority of the attention is focused on large companies who carry out these contracts, small businesses have become an increasingly larger part of the DoD’s arsenal.
Farooq Mitha currently serves as the Director of the Department of Defense Office of Small Business Programs (OPBP), where he oversees over $140 billion in annual awards to small businesses. These programs include efforts aimed to modernize and restore the nation’s industrial commons through focusing on advanced manufacturing, applied research, and innovative programs that align small business capabilities with the DoD’s current and future needs.
I recently spoke with Director Mitha on his experience at the DoD, the opportunities and resources his office provides for small businesses, and the Department of Defense’s 2023 small business strategy. Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.
Rhett Buttle: How does the Department of Defense work with small businesses across the country?
Director Mitha: Small businesses make up the largest part of the defense industrial base, upwards of 80%. We have prime contractors that are small businesses who are critical to everything we buy, whether it’s products, services, or technologies. It really cuts across everything we do. They are very, very important to the readiness of the war fighter and big contributors to the defense mission. So, we work very closely with them.
One of the programs my office overseas is a program called Apex Accelerators, where we have 96 accelerator entities in physical locations across the country that help small businesses learn how to do business with DoD. They are essentially our front door to industry all across the country. Once you get through the entry point, we’ve got a whole host of programs that help small businesses, setting them up to support us from developer capabilities to producing and providing us with innovative technologies, so they can become part of our supply chains.
Rhett Buttle: Can you tell us about your role and experience during your tenure as the Director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Small Business Programs?
Director Mitha: My job is to essentially ensure the strength, resiliency and even modernization of the entire small business industrial base. It’s also to make sure that as we procure products and services, we are utilizing small businesses to the maximum extent practicable. My office sits in the Office of the Secretary of Defense because every defense agency and military department has a small business program office, and they have a workforce that reports in their own chain of command.
I’m the leader of that whole workforce, which is about 750 small business professionals all across DoD. Those individuals work every day to do outreach and market research to make sure that we’re including small businesses in acquisition planning at the earliest stages. It’s really our goal to make sure that we’re taking small business capabilities and bringing them into our defense acquisition process, and helping leverage those capabilities to support the war fighter and the defense mission.
Rhett Buttle: This work is so vast, but many people don’t know the Department of Defense has an Office of Small Business Programs. Can you tell us a little more about the opportunities and resources your office provides?
Director Mitha: We created a single point of entry into the Defense Marketplace for all small businesses at my office’s website, a simple place where companies can go and learn about all the different programs we have, the tools we have for them, and the resources that they can access to do business with us. I mentioned Apex Accelerators and if you’re a new company and you want to do business with DoD, that’s the first place to go. They are the ones who can help you understand the landscape, the opportunities, and how to do business with us.
We also have other programs. There’s the Mentor Prodigy program, where we team smaller companies, specifically from certain disadvantaged communities, with successful companies that become their mentors, and they actually provide them with business developmental assistance to become part of their supply chains. We also have the Small Business Innovation Research Program at DoD, and that’s a program that helps put topics out, and bring in innovative technologies from the private sector into the defense space. We actually give companies contracts to mature and develop those technologies, from concepts to prototype, and then hopefully to production. There’s nowhere else in the world where that type of program exists.
We’re also really making it easy for companies to understand what those programs are, and how they can access them. One of the most important things that I heard from small companies when I started my job was that the cybersecurity requirements that they needed to satisfy to do business with DoD are too onerous on them. So, I set up Project Spectrum, where we’re providing companies with cybersecurity-related training rule assessments and the ability to do their own self-assessments because we want to make it easy for companies to do business with us.
Rhett Buttle: As Director of the Office of Small Business Programs, you oversee more than $140 billion of annual awards to small businesses. How can small businesses take advantage of the resources available to them through these awards?
Director Mitha: I would say there’s a couple ways. I highly recommend small businesses work both with our Apex Accelerators and the Small Business Administration (SBA). There are programs that they have for women-owned businesses and small disadvantaged businesses. For small businesses located in hub zones, they provide assistance to get certifications that will give them an advantage when they’re doing business with any federal government partner or at any federal government agency. Because we have set asides for small businesses, we host competitions exclusively for small businesses, and often they are for companies in those socioeconomic categories. The SBA also has Small Business Developmental Centers that are aligned with our Apex Accelerators. They really help companies at the business formulation stage and to come up with a business plan in those earlier stages, while we work with companies to actually identify procurement opportunities that they could submit a proposal or bid on.
There are a lot of resources across the federal government. For example, the Department of Commerce has resources through their Economic Development Agency. One of the things that we’re trying to do in the administration is really align all these federal government resources that have a local presence, so they’re working together, and small companies understand how you get from A to B to C, and what different value those various programs offer to them. Overall, the goal is for them to become part of our supply chain and suppliers to the federal government.
You mentioned $140 billion. That’s a combination of prime and subcontractor awards. A lot of the time the best way for a small business to get started is to start as a subcontractor. We have large primes who are always looking for subs. Often they go to our Apex Accelerators to help identify suppliers. Subcontracting is always a good way to get your foot in the door and get some experience. It allows you to build what’s called past performance, which is what we look for when a company bids to become a prime contractor. If you started as a sub, you can build that past performance and improve capacity and the infrastructure in your company to then become a prime contractor.
Rhett Buttle: Earlier this year, your office released a new small business strategy, which includes implementing a unified management approach and strengthening the department’s support of small businesses. Can you tell us more about that?
Director Mitha: Before I took this job, I was a small business owner and actually had done business with DoD. What I saw both in my government and industry experiences is that it can be quite complicated and confusing for a small business. DoD has more than 25 services and agencies. Each of them has their own small business office, their own acquisition planning process, and their own acquisition executives that oversee purchasing. We really want to make it easy for companies to work with us and for us to communicate with them.
We’re also standing up a small business integration group called business.defense.gov that will bring together all the various small business equities and players across DoD and really enable us to work in an environment where we can communicate better, share information together amongst ourselves, and streamline entry points. Right now, there are 20 different websites and opportunities.
Business.defense.gov will have forecasting of future opportunities. all the small business programs and what their solicitation cycles are, and how companies can fit into them. We’re going to build a CRM into the website so a company can input their information, and then they can understand who they should speak with and who their ideal customer might be, using natural language processing and the latest and greatest of AI machine learning. We’re trying to build those capabilities into what we’re doing with the goal of making it as simple as possible.
Rhett Buttle: What are your goals for your office during the rest of 2023?
Director Mitha: One of the first things that I did when I started this job was to make sure that our small business programs were stable. We’ve got a lot of different opportunities, but we need to make sure that those programs have the funding and the authorization that they need. Some of those programs were in a bad spot, like the mentor/protege program that I oversee. It didn’t have funding. It was cut out of the president’s budget by my predecessors and did not have the long-term authorization it needed. Now two years later, it’s got the funding and it is back in the president’s budget as a permanent program.
For the rest of 2023, I also want to make sure we get the Rapid Innovation Fund back to where it needs to be. That’s a program that helps commercialized technologies bridge what’s called the Valley of Death, which is basically when a company wins a contract developing a technology or prototype, but there’s a gap in between the time they finish and have an opportunity to go into commercialization. When that program was funded between 2011 and 2019, we saw over a 60% commercialization rate, which is more than you even see in the private sector. However, the program has not been funded since 2019, but I have the program back under my purview in the Office of Small Business Programs. We want to work hard to make sure we get the funding there so we can continue to support these companies.
The other thing that’s a big priority for me is continuing to provide more and more resources through Project Spectrum because we’ve seen that small businesses are not just at risk for cybersecurity vulnerabilities. They are also at risk from foreign ownership, control, and influence. So, we are taking Project Spectrum and converting it into a one-stop shop risk mitigation center for small businesses where they can understand their risks in these areas and get the resources, information, and tools to mitigate them. What we don’t want is companies to be attacked by adversaries, losing intellectual property, and very important sensitive government data. We really want to help them do that better through Project Spectrum.
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