Located in the historic Ybor City district in Tampa, Florida, SOFWERX is a dynamic thought laboratory designed to create a high rate of return for all participants. The historic red brick walls of the old cigar factories of Ybor contrast with the tall stools, wooden tables and high-definition television screens looking like facilities in Silicon Valley. Walking through the facility you see a variety of circuit boards, 3-D printers, and specialty tools laying around. On the walls hang pictures of the operators from War II's Office of Strategic Services. Old and new complement each other.
A factory of ideas and innovation, SOFWERX is a public-private innovator of technology designs fusing academia, civilian companies and other nontraditional DoD partners who work on United States Special Operations Command's most challenging problems. The prototyping, experimentation and radical collaboration conducted at SOFWERX is at the heart of special operations forces centered innovation. Also, warfighters are brought in at the center of innovation creating a roadmap to better identify solutions meeting their needs and keeps them grounded in the process of discovery.
"Today, we are seeing increasing threats from the use of commercial off-the-shelf technologies employed as weapons or manipulated for other threat purposes. This creates an imperative for using new tools and approaches such as SOFWERX to off-set these tactics," Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, commander U.S. Special Operations Command said. "I view SOFWERX as an integral tool and process of how we conduct effective requirements and resource management, drive a culture of rapid and meaningful innovation and continuously seek efficiencies in our acquisition process while taking reasonable risk for big trade-offs in value for our force."
SOFWERX is a techy acronym roughly translating to Special Operations Forces Works and was created under a partnership intermediary agreement between the Doolittle Institute and USSOCOM, signed in 2015. Doolittle is chartered to facilitate and assist SOCOM with accelerating delivery of innovative capabilities to USSOCOM through exploration, experimentation and assessment of promising technology.
"The agreement created an avenue for USSOCOM to reach entrepreneurs, small businesses, and creative talent outside the traditional DoD market, as well as have a place where the SOF operator, acquirer, and inventor could collaborate and think about the challenges of the future," said Kelly Stratton-Feix, director, Acquisition Agility Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology & Logistics.
SOFWERX has created a network of more than 7000 members in what they call their ecosystem. Through the use of a growing ecosystem, promotion of divergent thought, and neutral facilitation, SOFWERX is bringing the right minds together to solve challenging problems.
"The SOFWERX ecosystem has proven that a non-traditional and diverse community can produce valuable new and novel solutions to our problem sets and challenges," Stratton-Feix said. "Providing the platform for our operators to interact and collaborate with the ecosystem to discover the art of the possible is at the heart of the SOFWERX mission."
Since 2015, SOFWERX has produced new designs for consideration enabling more rapid follow-on acquisitions for next generation communication systems for special operations forces vehicles; concepts, initial designs and prototypes for new bow bumpers for SOF surface craft; casualty evacuation modifications for SOF vehicles and initial design studies for weaponizing SOF surface combatant boats to name a few.
"Government used to be the leader of research and development with civilian corporations following behind. Now that has flipped," said Tambrein Bates, director of SOFWERX. "You have Airbnb as the largest hotel and they own no buildings, Uber is the world's largest taxi service yet own no cars, Amazon is the largest shopping center, but is not brick and mortar. They are all platforms and marketplaces. We want SOFWERX to be a platform, a market place for the warfighter."
An example of SOFWERX's innovation is the GPS puck. "Until recently, a combat controller would typically carry the GPS for a unit and it is heavy and the size of a brick. The puck is light and the size of tape measure and every operator can carry it so everyone knows exactly where they are," Bates said.
Another potential unique platform developed for SOF is the Individual Aerial Mobility System single-man flying machine invented in France. "We at SOFWERX collaborated its military development and conducted training on this product with a one-man, 350 pound payload, traveling up to 120 mph untethered. In fact, a SOF operator was taught in one week how to fly the machine."
Another example of SOFWERX's innovation was a prize challenge event called "Jump the dog," a canine oxygen mask for High Altitude High Opening parachute jumps. The challenge was to design a system capable of providing 100% oxygen on demand for 15,000-35,000 feet jumps. Three prizes were awarded and now SOFWERX is doing a rapid prototyping for the winning design team concept.
SOFWERX heavily invests in innovation, but also leverages commercial off-the-shelf products for SOF use. An example of this is the Go-Tenna, which allows use of cell phones as point to point or network radios. "We have access to the supply side and an important role we have is to expand that supply side," said Bates.
The combination of innovation, ideas and exploiting off-the-shelf technology has the support of the USSOCOM commander and he recognizes the full value of the unique contributions of SOFWERX.
"SOFWERX has proven to be a valuable tool for the command. Operators and staff elements across all components have engaged their unique capabilities to have rapid and meaningful innovation," Gen. Thomas said. "Headquarters, component and theater special operations command's efforts to continue and expand use of SOFWERX capabilities demonstrate our initiative in support of the secretary of defense lines of effort to restore readiness, attract new partners and bring business reforms to the DoD."