Online entry for SMEs and academic suppliers to compete for government contracts
The 2012 government white paper National Security Through Technology acknowledged that SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are often naturally good at meeting defence and security requirements because of their agility, innovation, commitment, lower overheads and specialist skills and capabilities. But it also noted a concern that “the government is not doing enough to make the most of the many thousands” of SMEs that are part of the MOD’s supply network.
Six years later, and SME opportunities have increased thanks to a online marketplace.
R-Cloud (the ‘R’ stands for research) was developed by the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to streamline processes and simplify access to a wider range of suppliers in science and technology research areas. “R-Cloud supports innovation both in terms of the work it contracts for, and in the use of an electronic portal interface with DSTL’s suppliers which has a low barrier to entry,” says Sarah Fitzgerald, principal commercial manager for DSTL.
Originally conceived as a spreadsheet and email-based commercial contracting process, R-Cloud was launched as a fully digital service in February 2016. DSTL buyers have been trained to use the service, and their input helped evolve the tool. Suppliers were introduced to the concept through industry days and presentations.
Crucially, R-Cloud uses a push message, as opposed to a pull, says Fitzgerald. “Suppliers do not have to go looking for our opportunities… [opportunities] are sent to them if they have signed up to the terms and conditions and for those specific capability areas,” she explains. R-Cloud is organised into DSTL’s eight technical capability areas, which include counter terrorism and security, cyber, human capability and weapons.
The portal also reduces supplier costs, with bids done online instead of in print. And as suppliers sign up to pre-agreed Ts&Cs on joining R-Cloud, processing time is minimised for both parties.
The traditional defence terms and conditions were seen to be confusing for SMEs, so instead, they use narrative Ts&Cs that are easier to engage with. This also enables other parts of government to use the tool for their science and technology research opportunities. “The R-Cloud portal is built on an open modular architecture, meaning it is reusable across all government departments,” says Fitzgerald.
At launch, R-Cloud had approximately 350 suppliers registered. Now, Fitzgerald says, there are more than 500, ranging from sole traders through to SMEs and large defence suppliers. Of the 520 suppliers signed up, 60% are SMEs and 10% are from academia. Since the portal was launched, 35% of procurement spend has gone to SMEs.
Rob Gordon from SME software development company Riskaware says of the portal: “[It] is one of the best examples of how online procurement should be carried out… and offers the first real opportunity for small businesses and universities to compete on a level playing field with large organisations for DSTL contracts.”
The Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), part of DSTL, finds and funds innovations for defence and national security, says Lee Hammond, principal commercial manager at DSTL.
Since going live in December 2016, DASA has funded 138 contracts, with 40% of the suppliers new to DSTL.
DASA offers a range of opportunities, including hackathons, pitch panels and workshops. “Suppliers with a good idea can submit a one-page pitch to see if the work is worth pursuing, and submit their ideas into an open call for innovation,” says Hammond.
This year, DASA launched a network of innovation partners around the UK, co-located with organisations like universities, science parks and innovation hubs. This, says Hammond, “will build links into academia and help to find interesting and worthwhile opportunities for defence and security to exploit”.