Army Acquisition Experts Clear the Acquisition Chaos

By Douglas HalleauxFebruary 11, 2019

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania--U.S. Army researchers and technology developers, together with peers from across the spectrum of government research, spent two days with researchers, scientists, professors, and grants and contracts managers from The Pennsylvania State University Jan. 15-16 to share how these communities can best take advantage of each other's advances, processes and opportunities.

Specifically, the Army's experts wanted to share with Penn State peers how the Army's Other Transaction Agreements, and Penn State's special status as a nonprofit research institution, can help accelerate the innovation and development both groups need.

Other Transaction Agreements, OTAs, are contracting mechanisms that allow for rapid development of technology prototypes and their supporting efforts. The Department of Defense maintains multiple OTAs, each focusing on a specific technology area, like automotive developments or chemical and biological defense innovations.

Penn State belongs to multiple consortia linked to these OTAs, mostly due to the institution's materials science expertise.

Ben McMartin, Chief of the Acquisition Management Office at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's (CCDC) Ground Vehicle Systems Center, is among the Army's foremost experts in OTA policy, process and management and visited Penn State.

"We came to share with our research and management colleagues at Penn State how OTAs are opening up an avenue for collaboration in research and development between the government, private industry, and academia," says McMartin. "The OTA statute provides a special status for nonprofit research institutions, affording them treatment equal to that of non-traditional defense contractors."

This treatment means that when the government needs a technology or capability development and taps an OTA to fill it, academic institutions don't cost-share their winning contracts with the government. Additionally, when one of these institutions partners with a traditional defense prime contractor, that contractor doesn't have to cost-share either.

Cost-sharing represents a contractual obligation representing a third of the contract amount. Waiving the cost-sharing is a significant competitive advantage for universities like Penn State, also a designated University-Affiliated Research Center, further smoothing the university's connections with government research.

"He really brought a unique perspective of how to navigate OTAs and the various rules involved since this is an acquisition strategy currently underutilized by the University," said Kay van der Horst, Director of the Applied Biological and Biosecurity Research Laboratory (ABRL) at Penn State. "We're excited where this strengthening collaboration may lead us as well as the partnership opportunities within Penn State, the Department of Defense, other Agencies and industry."

McMartin also outlined the value that Penn State and other similar academic institutions play to bringing the most cutting-edge research developments to the field.

"The DOD researchers who are investing in the core-level 6.1, 6.2 research work need partners to transition that work to prototypes at the 6.3 and 6.4 levels and eventually into production. The OTA provides a streamlined tool to bridge the gap at all levels." says McMartin.

The designations of research levels, 6.1 through 6.4, indicate the level and scope of research conducted and are defined in this way by the Department of Defense. Broad-scope, basic and applied research like chemistry and physics to develop new materials, falls in the realm of 6.1 and 6.2 research. Advanced technology development and the demonstration and validation of these new technologies, like turning those materials into new armors or protective cloths, are considered narrower-scope, later-stage research and are considered levels 6.3 or 6.4. While the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or CCDC's Army Research Laboratory typically conduct 6.1 and 6.2 research, CCDC's other laboratories like the Ground Vehicle Systems Center carry that research further, into technology-development, 6.3 and 6.4 work.

"Getting that research from DARPA or Army Research Lab to an applied laboratory like the Ground Vehicle Systems Center really requires a partner who can identify the dual-use potential of the new research and imagine how it can be applied," says McMartin. "We think our academic partners can be that partner, especially when there's expertise in a field like materials science that bridges the full research process."

McMartin stressed that, though Penn State is important as an academic institution and the privileges under the OTA policy that provides, it is the advances in materials science that the university's researchers are developing that drew his eye.

Penn State is an international leader in materials science research with top-ranked programs that are creating new knowledge and push the boundaries of materials science.

"The professors and researchers gave us a briefing, as well, outlining their research and its potential applications," said McMartin. "The potential application to automotive and ground vehicle systems, especially as it relates to additive manufacturing and materials science for light weighting, really turned heads."

"The OTA workshop was one of the most engaging meetings for our research and contracts community bringing together faculty, sponsored research staff, strategic initiatives, industrial outreach, institutes, etc. In addition to education and potential research engagement opportunities, it provided answers to many questions on accelerated contractual mechanisms," said Shashank Priya, associate vice president for research and director of strategic initiatives in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Penn State. "I am confident that this interaction will facilitate the research transitions. We much appreciate the time and effort that Ben and his team put together in collaboration with ABRL in developing this very insightful and informative workshop."