Bring Back the Rapid Innovation Fund.

Author:Laingen, Chip
 
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During the sudden procurement crisis of World War II, when the War Department wanted a general purpose, light truck for the battlefield, Bantam fielded a prototype vehicle in 49 days. Nearly 80 years later, that innovation is now "Jeep," one of the most ubiquitous brands in history.

An equivalent Jeep-type innovation today would likely need 49 months to commercialize.

Today's "war department," of course, manages a very different commercialization process--one that has grown up with competitive bidding, cost and labor controls, administrative, legal and process requirements, disadvantaged business considerations, past performance preferences--and this year--cybersecurity mandates.

The Defense Department's Rapid Innovation Fund, which accessed innovation largely from small businesses using Broad Agency Announcements, was part of an effort to accelerate critical technology to the warfighter; if not to the standard of the Jeep timeline, at least to a reasonable two years or less. It was among many such funding strategies of the past decade including other transaction authority consortia and the Defense Innovation Unit, but the Rapid Innovation Fund was arguably the best among them for its access to small business innovation, and its commercialization outcomes.

It was, however, abruptly ended in 2020 after nine successful years. The reasons for its demise are likely as complicated as the acquisition process itself. Yet from the perspective of many small businesses that were awarded an RIF contract, it should not only be restored, but done so with significantly increased funding. It should also be reinstated with the intention of being an example of how to rapidly access, fund and accelerate innovative technology solutions for the warfighter.

Following on the heels of cancelling congressional earmark funding, the program was introduced in the fiscal year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act as a means for transitioning innovative technologies into defense programs. Harvesting the outcomes of the Small Business Innovation Research program's early- and mid-stage technology was a key driver behind the legislation. The NDAA provided "permanent" authority for the program. While inception year funding was $400 million, Congress settled in on $250 million per year, appropriating that amount annually through 2019. The fiscal year 2020 NDAA adjusted the language to increase the cap on projects from $3 million to $6 million. However, Congress did not appropriate funds for the program this year.

What set the Rapid Innovation Fund apart as a truly effective catalyst for commercialization in the defense environment?

First, it was the most relevant late-stage...

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