A FAIR TRADE(WIND): Tradewind was formed in early 2021 to set up and manage a prototype business process that streamlines rapid procurement and agile delivery of AI capabilities for DOD. (Image from tradewindai.com)
The DOD Tradewind initiative for artificial intelligence and machine learning is shaking things up with a new solutions marketplace and innovative approaches to acquisition.
by Ellen Summey
The DOD Tradewind initiative for artificial intelligence solutions made headlines when it first launched in 2021, and now it is turning heads again with its newest offering—a video-based marketplace for AI solutions to government problems.
“We have to make buying solutions as easy as adding something to your cart online,” said Bonnie Evangelista, the Tradewind execution lead within the DOD Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office. The Tradewind Solutions Marketplace, introduced in October 2022, is a platform that invites partners in industry and academia to upload short videos to pitch their tech solutions to DOD. But that’s not the most exciting part. The submissions are assessed by a team of technical and acquisition experts, and then either approved as “awardable” to government clients who can log in and browse solutions, or marked “not awardable” and given ample feedback and the opportunity to try again.
“The submitters have an unlimited number of opportunities to continue to refine their submission and resubmit,” said the project’s submission assessment lead, Gene Del Coco. “If not immediately awardable, they get a do-over and they can do over as many times as they want, to focus or adjust their video so it meets the government’s requirement.” That’s unheard of in federal acquisition.
What’s this all about? According to the DOD Tradewind department website, Tradewind is “a suite of tools and services designed to accelerate the procurement and adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning, digital and data analytics solutions across DOD.” It was formed through an other-transaction agreement with Indiana Innovation Institute (IN3), now known as the Applied Research Institute (ARI), in early 2021 to “set up and manage a prototype business process that streamlines rapid procurement and agile delivery of AI capabilities for the Department of Defense,” according to a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center press release.
“Tradewind was meant to accelerate the delivery of artificial intelligence to the DOD, as everyone acknowledged that the current way of doing business was not giving us the results we were looking for, in terms of delivering capabilities,” Evangelista said in an interview with Army AL&T. “So, Tradewind was an intentional effort to do something different.” In short, it’s an attempt to unlock the full potential of the other-transaction authority and alternative acquisition pathways.
Evangelista said the initiative also involves cultivating a community of interest around AI solutions. “We can’t do this alone, so we wanted to create a community or, we often refer to it, an ecosystem, where people can not only plug in and connect, but can also find resources and a support system to help them in this journey,” Evangelista said. She believes that many of the efforts at Tradewind may be unfamiliar to members of the defense acquisition workforce, but she hopes to change that. “This may be foreign to them—and I say that with love—because they’ve not been exposed to these new contracting pathways that we’re implementing under Tradewind.”
IN THE MARKET FOR AI
Of all the interesting tools and services that Tradewind offers, Evangelista said she believes the new Tradewind Solutions Marketplace shows the most promise in terms of acquisition innovation. It is “the newest and most promising contracting pathway that we are providing, and I believe it can be a game changer,” she said. “The marketplace is a concept we believe will have a strong demand signal, and our focus is to create a thriving marketplace.”
The Tradewind team is asking industry, academia and individual innovators to submit five-minute videos about their solutions and how they will solve a DOD problem—whether a product, a service or something else they can offer. For example, two current offerings include a real-time object detection tool for safe airfield management and an AI-based solution that detects anomalies in satellite videos. “Those videos are then assessed for technical merit, and when we determine that they meet our standards, we publish those videos to our marketplace and label them ‘awardable,’ ” she said. “For industry, that means we created a platform for you to showcase your offerings, and that can be anything from mature solutions to early research and development, and for the government, this is the part where we have to prove out the concept of ‘click and buy.’ ”
Del Coco explained that the assessment phase includes a team of experts from academia, industry and government who use a product called Valid Eval (See “Confidence Boost” in the fall 2021 issue of Army AL&T magazine) to complete a very thorough evaluation of the video submission over the course of three to four days. The team holds a consensus meeting at the end of the evaluation process and will provide constructive feedback to a vendor not deemed “awardable,” which has been a huge hit so far. “The comments we’ve gotten back from all of the vendors are that they’ve never had anything like this,” Del Coco said. “They’ve never had the government take this much interest in the company as we have taken with them, to ensure that they’re successful.”
Evangelista said the marketplace is a “post-competitive environment.” She likens it to a competitive playground that uses both FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) and non-FAR based authorities, allowing government customers to go directly to the vendor that may be able to solve your problem. “You don’t have to do a sole source J&A [justification and approval] to buy. We’ve essentially obviated the need for the lengthy source selection activity,” she said. “I’m not saying the marketplace will solve everyone’s problems, but in terms of innovation, emerging technology or rapid acquisition, a marketplace like this is probably what you need because it allows you to go directly to the solution that has a mission application and run a pilot or whatever you need to do.”
Beyond the actual marketplace, where interested vendors upload short videos about their proposed solutions, Evangelista sees a larger challenge related to culture change within DOD. “This is where we are challenging cultural barriers and trying to change hearts and minds out there,” she said. “Rather than pushing requirements out to industry, we are trying to pull solutions into the Department of Defense through this marketplace.”
According to Del Coco, the marketplace is the latest in a long line of acquisition-related innovations he has witnessed, and he still finds is astonishing that these solutions are being submitted entirely online via short-form video. “In my government career, I was the technical team manager for a major combat vehicle development program. That submission and evaluation lasted for one full year. The amount of paper we had was astounding—proposals were delivered by trailer truck,” he recalled. “Of course, we’re not doing major system development programs with the marketplace, but we are getting to novel and highly advanced technology in a very streamlined, efficient way.”
More recently, he worked as a consortium manager for SOSSEC Inc., the consortium administrator for the Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems (PEO EIS) Cyber Operations Broad Responsive Agreement (COBRA) other-transaction agreement (OTA). “We made a pact in the early days of the COBRA OTA that we were going to throw the rulebook away and look at new ways of doing things,” he said. “I’ve worked about 12 or 13 OTAs for a variety of different agencies, and the COBRA OTA is probably the most agile one that I’ve worked on, and we did things within that OTA that I consider to be revolutionary. We brought a lot of those same concepts into the Tradewind Solutions Marketplace. I think the marketplace is the ultimate manifestation of that goal we had, in terms of making things simple.”
Evangelista, who is now a DOD leader on novel contracting approaches and the OTA, was also at PEO EIS during the early days of the COBRA OTA, having moved to that role from her prior position at Army Contracting Command – Rock Island. She said the Tradewind team is now investigating whether AI tools can improve business processes for acquisition professionals. “We’re actually prototyping a couple of software tools. One is going to be an AI-powered contract writing system,” she said. “There is no contract writing system today that helps us write non-FAR based contracts and agreements, so can we leverage AI—specifically natural language processing and other AI-like technologies, such as generative AI—to make the process faster?”
One of the Tradewind pilots involves an AI-focused podcast called “AI Proficiency: Turning Tomorrow Into Today,” for which Evangelista serves as de facto host. “One of our goals was to create digital content to increase acquisition workforce competencies related to AI, and that’s where the podcast comes in,” she said. One of Tradewind’s nonprofit innovation partners, the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center, manages the production of the podcast, and Evangelista has been leveraging her own personal network to find guests since the November 2022 launch.
“I’m trying to bring interesting content and conversation around AI for the government workforce, but it could really apply to everyone,” she said. She aims to find guests representing a broad range of perspectives, and she said the team has planned a lot of interesting content related to non-FAR-based contracting strategies and pathways. “In general, it’s about improving AI literacy. The goal of this podcast pilot is to understand if it is a good idea to message this digital content through a podcast medium. It’s truly an experiment.”
The team released three episodes in December, and based on the feedback that they received, the most engaging content was about novel approaches to contracting. On that episode, “we talked a lot about OTA [other-transaction authority] and some of the reasons it is still underutilized, why people get scared about using it and what are some of the challenges we see for adoption across the workforce,” she said. “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on that type of content. We have data about the number of downloads, and there was a clear demand, based on my conversation with our nonprofit partner, that the non-FAR-based contracting topic seemed to be very engaging for people.”
FEEDBACK FROM THE FIELD
What kind of feedback is the marketplace team receiving from partners in industry and government? “I get two types of feedback,” Evangelista said. “I mostly get feedback like, ‘This is a really cool and novel approach to the authorities we have. How do I use it?’ They already understand the value proposition. I’ve already got people asking me, ‘How do I scale this marketplace to SBIR?’ ”—the Small Business Innovation Research program.
On the other hand, she said she also gets people asking how to do price competition on the marketplace. “There is a lack of understanding that price competition is not required on the marketplace,” she said. “You can still do reasonable price determinations without a price competition. There’s a lot of education and unlearning that has to take place, as we can tell by some of the questions that we get.”
Evangelista said that’s her greatest fear with this marketplace, that the acquisition workforce may not readily take to something this novel. “We’re so used to competing all of the things in this one solicitation, and it apples to apples in a very compliance-oriented source-selection process, so if you’re given an environment where you just pick a solution and you have to create a business deal, I don’t know if everyone is ready for that. I hope they are, because it’s a really exciting opportunity,” she said.
Del Coco echoed Evangelista’s concerns and said he feels the sky is the limit for this new style of marketplace if government acquisition workers are eager to participate. “We’re very confident in the marketplace, and if we’re right, and it’s readily accepted by the acquisition authorities, then I think we have a winner on our hands. It enables the DOD to quickly acquire critical technologies in a way no other platform can.”
“We officially went live with the MVP [minimum viable product] Nov. 1, and that month we received 20 video submissions,” Evangelista said. “We started the first assessments in December, and 10 out of those 20 have made it into the marketplace. The other 10 did not meet our standards, and that’s OK. We’re going to work with those vendors and figure out how they can refine their submissions, depending on the feedback they received from their assessments.”
The marketplace received another 14 videos during December, and those were assessed in January. “It’s still super early, but I feel like we’ll start to see a lot of activity once people start to make contract awards,” she said. All in all, the team feels great about the progress it’s seen so far.
“We weren’t sure what to expect when we first launched the marketplace,” said Fianna Litvok, who supports the Tradewind initiative as director of federal contract communications for ARI. “We were ecstatic to get 20 videos in the first month. To have 10 that are viable is really exciting. We’ve been marketing heavily to industry, academics and innovators to encourage them to submit their solutions to the marketplace, and we’re working equally as hard to communicate our value propositions to government acquisition folks, that the demand is just as strong as the supply.”
“Of the videos we’ve received so far, probably 96 percent are from small companies—small, often veteran-owned or disadvantaged small businesses,” Del Coco said. “We’ve seen some submissions from the big guys, but they are few and far between.” He said it is very exciting to see so many submissions from small businesses, since they may sometimes struggle to compete for government contracts against bigger companies. “It’s so interesting because many of those smaller operations have some pretty superior types of technologies to offer.”
Litvock agreed and said this platform is a game changer for smaller businesses hoping to compete in the AI space. “It completely levels the playing field.”
Though the Tradewind Solutions Marketplace is nominally focused on AI solutions, it is also receiving submissions in related fields like cybersecurity. Del Coco sees this as a logical step. “The cyber domain is a very demanding one,” he said. “It changes rapidly and needs new technology very quickly, so we’ve seen a number of cyber-related videos come in, though most are tied in some way to some AI application.”
Evangelista agreed that similar technologies may be a good fit for the Tradewind Solutions Marketplace, and she thinks it may expand in the future. “Because we’re with the DOD Chief of Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, we are AI, digital and data oriented, but I see this marketplace being so cross-cutting,” Evangelista said. “I imagine we will add technical focus areas as hopefully program executive offices and others in government start adopting a similar methodology and asking to have their portfolio represented on the marketplace.”
For more information, go to www.tradewindai.com or email email@example.com.
ELLEN SUMMEY provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as a communications project manager for SAIC. She holds an M.A. in human relations from the University of Oklahoma and a B.A. in mass communication from Louisiana State University. She has earned the Accreditation in Public Relations and Military Communication, is certified as a Project Management Professional, and has more than 18 years of communication experience in both the government and commercial sectors.