DOD is looking to grow its marketplace for speedy acquisitions of innovative tech

Craig Martell, who is exiting as DOD's Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer this week, at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in 2022.

Craig Martell, who is exiting as DOD's Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer this week, at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in 2022. DOD photo by Myles Scrinopskie

The Pentagon is working to build its Tradewinds Solutions Marketplace “out of the proof of concept phase” to help more DOD entities quickly acquire innovative industry products.

The Department of Defense’s platform for fast-tracking the acquisition of innovative products and services is looking to scale up in 2024 and beyond, with officials working to sell the concept of the model across the department and with industry partners. 

Overseen by the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office — or CDAO — the Tradewinds Solutions Marketplace describes itself as “DOD’s digital environment of postcompetition, readily awardable, 5:00 minute technology solution pitch videos.” 

The marketplace evolved out of a contract that DOD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, a precursor to CDAO, and the Army Contracting Command at Rock Island signed in February 2021 with what was then known as the Indiana Innovation Institute, with the goal of establishing an online ecosystem called Tradewinds to streamline the acquisition of artificial intelligence technologies. 

In collaboration with CDAO, Tradewinds launched the marketplace in November 2022 to provide a platform for contract seekers to share their pitch videos for AI, machine learning and other innovative solutions. The platform is managed by the Applied Research Institute, which was formerly known as the Indiana Innovation Institute.

If pitches from qualifying companies are deemed awardable and included in the marketplace, then the contract seekers’ video submissions are made accessible to DOD entities that also participate in the marketplace. 

Officials aim to expand DOD, industry participation

During a keynote speech at CDAO’s defense data and AI symposium in February, Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer Craig Martell said his office was focused on expanding the Tradewinds marketplace to make it easier for companies to enter into DOD contracts. Martell is poised to step down from his position at the end of this week. 

Bonnie Evangelista, CDAO’s acting deputy for acquisition directorate, echoed Martell’s comments in an interview with Nextgov/FCW, saying that CDAO is closely examining how to build out the marketplace, both within the organization and across the Pentagon.

“We're thinking about this at scale, in terms of ‘how do we bring the end user community and the buying community together and use the marketplace model as the conduit between the groups?’” Evangelista said. 

She said CDAO is also examining avenues for integrating its model into other tech-focused Pentagon initiatives to help purchase and field new technologies.

Some of these early discussions have included potential ways of scaling the marketplace into the Global Information Dominance Experiments, which are overseen by CDAO and focus on assessing emerging technologies. Other discussions have focused on ways of providing combatant commands with faster access to new products. 

“So the biggest criticism we hear from industry is access to soldiers with domain expertise so that they know what the challenges and the issues are that they face so they can build products that better meet their needs,” Evangelista said.

CDAO is also still working to sell the concept of the Tradewinds marketplace moving forward, since it represents a departure from DOD’s traditional acquisition process. Evangelista said CDAO is working on moving the marketplace “out of the proof of concept phase,” with the office focused on expanding the model across government and industry.

“There's concerns with the legality and whether this is real because it's such a different way of doing business,” Evangelista said, noting that the Tradewinds marketplace is a merit-based competition, where government entities can engage one-on-one with listed vendors.

“We’re trained really good to do a very specific way of doing business with the FAR, making sure we're compliant with the Competition in Contracting Act, and this is a little bit different,” she said, adding that “there's a little bit of an education gap and there's a policy potential.”

Video pitch model lowers the barrier to entry

CDAO views the video pitch model as an effective way of streamlining the often drawn out process for the Pentagon to acquire new technologies. DOD said it takes at least 18 months for most contractors to receive their first government contract, but the marketplace significantly shortens the time it takes for companies to connect with interested department customers. 

Evangelista said that a five minute video “is more consumable” for DOD customers and lowers the barrier to entry for companies hoping to receive Pentagon contracts. Since the marketplace was launched, 254 videos have been deemed awardable by the peer panel established to review submissions and posted to the Tradewinds website. 

“Assuming you're kind of hitting the marks in terms of what we're looking for — for either novel or cutting-edge solutions that would have a great impact in the department — then you're in the marketplace, you're awardable,” Evangelista said of the video pitches.

Once companies are in the marketplace, DOD entities can search through the platform and find firms that they want to deal with. According to Tradewinds’ data, 28 pitches have received awards or are in process of receiving one through the platform. 

Bringing smaller companies into DOD’s orbit

The video pitches, in which prospective vendors discuss the merits of their products, have proven to be an easier process for smaller firms looking to showcase their products. And the marketplace’s accessibility for both traditional and non-traditional companies and organizations has allowed the department to work with smaller entities that are often squeezed out of the traditional acquisition process. 

Some of the industry executives and acquisition leads who have successfully entered the Tradewinds marketplace said the relative swiftness of the process and ease of entry were a welcome change from the government’s traditional acquisitions approach. 

Steve Durst — the CEO of security firm Skaion — said in comparison to other federal contracting processes the company has gone through, the undertaking with CDAO “was smooth, amazing.”

“We're a very small business, and I think anything that can sort of ease the friction is certainly welcome,” Durst said. 

Eric Renouf, a senior researcher at Skaion, took the lead in creating the company’s video pitch. He wrote out a script, recorded several versions of the video and then stitched everything together.

“All told, the video production took 3 or 4 days start to finish, which is certainly a lot less time that I would have spent writing a traditional proposal,” Renouf said.

Skaion was reviewed by the peer assessment panel and deemed to be awardable, and ultimately received a contract through the marketplace for cybersecurity research and development technologies.