Many businesses and academic researchers wishing to pursue cutting-edge research ideas with government support lack the resources to navigate the burdensome paperwork requirements required to win federal grants or contracts. DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) has created a simplified proposal process to attract and fund new ideas from just those types of innovators—those operating at the intersection of biology and technology who may never have worked with the Defense Department and may otherwise have remained too daunted to try.
Under BTO’s new EZ BAA process, these scientists and engineers can now be on their way to receiving up to $700,000 in “seedling” funding simply by submitting a two-page white paper describing their ideas. Full details are available at: https://go.usa.gov/AYwe
“Some of the most exciting work in biotech is happening at the edges and intersections of disciplines, by people who in many cases have never worked with the government before and don’t know how to navigate traditional funding channels,” said Dr. Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “Since DARPA itself operates at the edges of science and technology, these are often precisely the people with whom we want to be in business. So we’ve created a process that they can relate to.”
BAAs, or Broad Agency Announcements, are the traditional means by which DARPA announces funding opportunities. The EZ BAA process removes two major barriers to entry for potential DARPA performers. First, rather than DARPA specifying a capability and seeking ideas on how to achieve it, the EZ BAA is open to any idea with the potential to yield revolutionary new capabilities in the biotech space. This eliminates the need for proposers to search or wait for specific opportunities relevant to their expertise. Second, rather than forcing would-be proposers to respond in full detail to a traditional BAA, which typically runs 40 to 60 pages and requires highly structured responses from proposers, BTO’s EZ BAA requires only a two-page white paper to start. Within just a few weeks of submission, DARPA will either encourage or discourage submission of a full proposal of no more than 20 pages.
The simplified proposals will be limited to a cover sheet, optional submission letter, 200-word layman’s summary, goals and impact statement, statement of work, management plan, description of organizational capabilities, and a cost summary; proposers must also submit a separate cost proposal detailing planned expenditures. DARPA will evaluate proposals based on scientific and technical merit, cost realism, and relevance and potential contribution to the DARPA mission.
“DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, which launched earlier this year, looks at biology as a technology, with a focus on harnessing living systems or integrating those systems with nonliving systems,” Jackson said. “If you look at where we’re already invested, it’s in areas such as human-machine interfaces, synthetic biology, combatting infectious disease and optimizing human health. The ideas we’re seeking would continue that push to integrate biology, engineering, and computer science to create new capabilities relevant to national security. It’s an exciting space, it’s meaningful, and it positions researchers at the far forward edge of today’s biological and technological revolutions.”
To create the EZ BAA, DARPA’s contract management team trimmed the standard language in BAAs and removed everything but the bare essentials to get the funding process going. As a result of this process, funded research will be limited to unclassified work.
Proposers can choose from two funding mechanisms in their submissions: “other transactions” or fixed-price procurement contracts. Other transactions are particularly suited to the development of dual-use technologies (those with both defense and commercial applications) or when participants are largely from commercial industry.
DARPA’s EZ BAA is inspired in part by a trial effort to simplify federal procurement that was launched by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program in December 2012 with the support of the U.S Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Officer, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The “RFP-EZ” program aimed to give small businesses and entrepreneurs an easy way to learn about and compete for government contracts—in particular, small companies that lacked the experience or administrative support required to take full advantage of the government’s standard Request for Proposals (RFP) process.
Early results from the RFP-EZ program showed it had the potential to deliver lower-cost services while expanding the performer base. According to a May 2013 OSTP blog post, the team ran a pilot by posting five relatively simple website development and database contract offerings to the RFP-EZ platform, four of which were also announced via the standard government portal, FedBizOps. RFP-EZ attracted more than 270 businesses that had never previously approached the world of federal contracting.