Why America’s Special Ops Command Is Recruiting Disruptors

December 13, 2017

Forbes | Amy Guttman

James “Hondo” Guerts was sworn in last week as U.S. Navy Acquisition Chief. Our interview took place before his nomination.

“We’ve been at war for the longest time ever in U.S. history. What gets difficult is coming up with new ways to do things – disrupting, or reacting quickly to things that happen disruptively. That’s a lot of what we’re trying to do here.”

James “Hondo” Geurts is the shortest link between startups and U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), headquartered at Fort MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. As acquisition executive, it’s his job to solve some of the biggest problems facing the 70,000-person command. It took Guerts just six weeks to set up a center for collaboration and innovation called Sofwerx (in partnership with the Doolittle Institute) to attract entrepreneurs, engineers, and others to address some of those challenges. Guerts is responsible for all technology development, acquisition, procurement and logistics, reporting directly to the combatant commander.

“We’re the only combatant command that has the ability to develop and acquire our own equipment. That equates to 500M a year on R&D, about $2B in procurement and upwards of $3-5B a year in sustainment and logistics. My goal is – how do we most effectively use those dollars to get equipment and tech out to the field and support our operators.”

New problems, Guerts says, require new ideas and new technology. That’s what led to Sofwerx, which opened in January 2016. It’s a workshop and incubator in Tampa’s Ybor City, once home to Cuban immigrants rolling cigars, and now enjoying a revival with trendy coffee shops, co-work spaces and startups. Yes, you heard right – the military is based in a trendy area. That’s because the aim of Sofwerx is to recruit a diverse community of university students, founders, startups and veterans who can test prototypes, team up and tap local resources.

“We have operators from across our entire force; so if you bring in equipment you can have it looked at by Marines, Green Berets and Special Forces.”

The mission is to accelerate solutions and close the gap between innovators and SOCOM in order to get the latest tech in the hands of combat soldiers as fast as possible.

“We are incentivized to work at the speed of our operations. It’s really hard for people to support us in that goal with three layers of barbed wire separating you.”

Tampa holds the unique position of hosting both SOCOM and CENTCOM; both forced to keep pace with ever-evolving modern warfare. Those needs, combined with Tampa’s growing tech ecosystem and specialized education programs lay the foundation for mutually beneficial gains with high impact on both sides.

“We have a lot of hard problems. A lot of what we’re looking for is immediately transferable to police forces and the FBI. If you’re an entrepreneur, and can demo a product at Sofwerx, we can potentially get it to market quickly. I’m interested in velocity – and strengthening our network so when we have a big problem, we can bring in folks to solve that problem.”

Guerts thinks of Sofwerx as a marketplace, where rapid prototypes can be produced for commercial use and then purchased by SOCOM.

One success is an open source, 3D printed device that can be an airplane, a quad copter or a ground robot. Keeping the product open source makes it accessible on a global scale.

Guerts sees Tampa’s startups, engineers, veterans, and students as an innovative army vital to national security.

“When I think of a vibrant ecosystem I think of pivot speed. We’ve been able to pivot really quickly to solve national security problems. The biggest challenge here is impulse buys.”