Defining the Valley of Death

-As shared by Katie Bilek

What is the Valley of Death? According to the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), it is “a phenomenon faced by many startups when trying to do business with the Department of Defense … where a vendor transitions a prototype or commercially available product to a DoD contract.”

This acquisition gap period typically lasts for 1-2 years, during which time that startup – starved for contracts, cash, and endurance for working on the government’s timeline – may wither and die in the proverbial desert valley.

At the time this post was written, Deputy Secretary of Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks had tasked an innovation steering group to map out this transition process from prototype to contract with the goal of identifying bottlenecks and cliffs that a small business may encounter. In theory, if those milestones are addressed, we can do more tactically to shepherd these fragile startups through the sweltering valley into technology transition and real procurement dollars.

A 2015 GAO report noted the Valley of Death “exists because the acquisition community often requires a higher level of technology maturity than the science and technology community is willing to fund and develop.” While a more recent update from GAO points to progress on this front, the problem still persists.

So, what’s going on behind the scenes during those 1-2 years after the prototype has been completed? Simply put – acquisition bureaucracy. Now – before we all pile onto the bandwagon of bashing our federal procurement system (as irresistible as that may be), this very system has built major programs of record, deployed technologies and systems across decades of military initiatives, and fielded trillions of dollars for industry to support federal missions.

For those of us in industry, we cheekily revert to the phrase that this is “good enough for government work.” But, given our current geopolitical positioning, the sobering reality is that the most mission-critical technologies, developments and initiatives are simply being protracted, suffocated ,and seemingly left to fade away.

The Valley of Death is real – nobody knows this better than those of us in industry. Let’s prioritize mitigating the impact of the Valley of Death so that we can continue to deliver the best solutions and technologies to the warfighter.