Photo: Gregg McGough
Special Operations, Special Gear
A unique tech incubator develops solutions to problems faced by special ops troops.
In 2012, Tambrein Bates retired from the Army after 25 years, 20 of which he spent as an elite special operator. In late 2013, he was working for L3 Technologies in Texas when he got a call from James Geurts, acquisition chief at U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa.
Geurts, a retired Air Force colonel, wanted to make it easier for special operations forces (SOF) to acquire and develop new technologies. He was putting together a task force to study the issue and hoped that Bates, with whom he had served in the military, would participate.
“He felt that SOF was losing some of its edge in the realm of innovation,” Bates recalls of their conversation, “that commercial research was far outpacing governmental research. The idea was how can we loosen the bounds and start to really get after that problem.”
The task force, including Bates, ultimately recommended that SOCOM create a special ops lab, managed by a non-profit partner, to scout for innovative ideas and products.
In fall 2015, SOFWERX opened in a former tattoo parlor in Ybor City, several miles from SOCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base. To run the lab, SOCOM chose Fort Walton Beach-based DEFENSEWERX (formerly the Doolittle Institute), which also works with the Air Force on research and development projects in northwest Florida and Nevada. Bates left his job at L3 Technologies and joined the nonprofit as SOFWERX director.
SOFWERX — an abbreviated spin on “Special Operations Forces Works” —provides a venue for SOCOM to engage small businesses and startups in new acquisition programs. With an annual budget of about $4 million and 21 employees, it aims to leverage commercial innovation “to accelerate capabilities to the warfighter,” Bates says.
It works like this: A special operator comes to SOFWERX seeking a solution to a specific operational problem — in one case, Navy SEALs needed a new boat bumper that could sustain 5,000 pounds of force [“Cutting to the Chase,” right].
SOFWERX then assigns the task to a team of industry research partners and academics, or it holds a contest with prize money to gather ideas from an “ecosystem” of entrepreneurs, hackers and citizen-scientists. By bypassing the federal bureaucracy, SOFWERX is able to make decisions more quickly, Bates says.
“We’re not encumbered with the federal acquisition process,” he says. “We operate on a business-to-business basis, just like every other business out there in the free world does.”
Last August, SOFWERX moved to larger space in Ybor City. At 35,000 square feet, it has an indoor test bed for drones and a rapid-prototyping room with laser cutters and 3-D printers. The decor is urban loft, with exposed brick walls and ceiling ducts.
The facility is open to the public; visitors sign in on iPads.
A few details hint at the facility’s military orientation, however: Large blackand- white photos of special operators hang on the walls, and meeting rooms bear the names of famous battles.
On a recent afternoon, Bates holds up a 3-D-printed rock that can be used as a secret listening device. Next to it on a table is a drone detection system, which a local company developed for SOFWERX during a prize competition. “It cost us $30,000, including the prize money, and it’s something our guys can use downrange right now,” Bates says.
“The government and military tend to have echo chambers,” he adds. “To hear from voices outside those echo chambers is pretty valuable.”