Air Force Seeks Hanscom Tech Bids

Dec 15, 2013Boston Globe, Council in the News

By Scott Van Voorhis

Jim Burnett chatted away with Hanscom Air Force Base officials long after the event at Burlington’s Hilton Garden Inn had ended, touting the virtues of a compact new cooling system designed to keep military electronics functioning smoothly in the harshest environments on earth.

Burnett, government affairs chief for Marlborough-based Aspen Systems Inc., was one of an estimated 150 small-business owners and employees who turned out Wednesday morning to hear an unusual pitch by Air Force officials.

Hanscom is seeking to boost the number of technology companies that bid each year on the $2.8 billion in research and development contracts awarded each year through the Bedford military installation.

And in an effort to drum up interest, top Air Force officials laid out a range of potential contract opportunities, making their pitch in an event typically reserved for big companies.

“It is really a hotbed of technology talent here,” said Chuck Paone, public affairs director at Hanscom. “Small businesses tend to bring a lot of innovation to the table.”

The Air Force is looking to spread its wings, so to speak, in the range of companies it does business with in a bid to foster more competition and get the best deal possible, said Bill Donaldson, director of small business programs at Hanscom.

It is also long-standing federal policy to do as much business as possible with small businesses, given they are often the leaders in growth and job creation, he added.

But Hanscom also wants to leverage the technology talent and creativity that are hallmarks of the Route 128/Interstate 95 corridor, he said, where smaller companies are often at the forefront of developing new products and capabilities.

Hanscom doled out $213 million in contracts to small businesses during the last federal fiscal year in Massachusetts and across the country, and is looking to increase that number, Donaldson said.

The Air Force is specifically looking for new expertise in communications-equipment manufacturing, with a particular focus on search, detection, navigation, guidance, aeronautical, and nautical systems, among others.

“They are blown away when they see the capabilities” of small technology firms, Donaldson said of Air Force officials.

Kristin Maier, president of Peerless Precision Inc., was on hand to check out potential opportunities for her small machine-tool manufacturing operation in Westfield.

“It gave me a direction to go in,” she said. “There is a lot of potential business.”

A Dedham business was there pitching its energy-saving lighting controls, while a retired engineer from Salem, N.H., was talking up his project management expertise.

Others drove in from as far afield as New York.

Turnout was so large that the event had to be moved at the last minute to the Burlington Hilton from a Northeastern University facility in Burlington, the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security.

Hanscom officials credited the state’s Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force, the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, and industry groups, such as the Massachusetts High Technology Council, for helping get the word out.

For some business owners who have never worked for the government, the morninglong session was a crash course in defense contracting.

Audience members learned the difference between a “secret” security clearance level — apparently not that hard to get — and “top secret,” which is much tougher.

Hanscom officials also tried to lay out a map for negotiating the government and military bureaucracy, explaining who the go-to people are for various contracts and situations.

Burnett, with Aspen Systems, said he was hoping his chat with Hanscom officials would pay off down the line with additional demand and contracts for the high-tech air-conditioning units offered by the 12-employee company.

“Awareness is the first step in the sales process,” he said.

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