Building Innovation Takes a Village
It just took an idea from two friends and interest from a couple of companies to create an organization that is fostering a supportive ecosystem for defense, government and industrial companies in Colorado.
Known as The Smalls, the nonprofit organization has a motto of network, collaborate and grow, as it brings together government contractors, service providers, manufacturing and governmental institutions in the state. The organization was created by two current Quantum Research International coworkers, Dennis Kater, a 23-year Army veteran and officer and the company’s business development director, and Nate Moser, a systems engineer, who provides technology scout support to the U.S. Space Force’s Space Rapid Capability Office and helps run the company’s agile software factory.
“We felt that there was a need to kind of get the government contracting ecosystem together,” said Kater, The Smalls executive director, who is also the AFCEA Rocky Mountain Chapter Small Business vice president. “Everybody was doing events, all of the different organizations in town and there really wasn't a way to get out information on what was happening across the community and across government contracting, so we started an organization. We had a couple of small business development people get together and then it kept on kind of growing. Today, we have over 650 members.”
One of The Smalls’ goals is to strengthen the region’s supply chain, to improve home-grown manufacturing, products and solutions. “If you are a small government contractor you don't really have a lot of resources,” Kater explained. “But if you want to build a product, then you need manufacturing support.”
In addition to bringing together prime defense contractors and small businesses, the organization also draws in professional service companies, construction workers, information technology support, banks, health care workers realtors and attorneys—anything that the military or governmental contracting companies might need help with to get established or grow their capabilities.
“It is all part of the ecosystem,” Moser says. “If I win a large contract, for example, with the Air Force, building weapon systems on the ground, more than likely it's going to entail civil construction. I need construction workers; I need all of that even if I’m a big company or a small company.”
“The Army Corps of Engineers, particularly in Colorado, has billions in construction projects alone,” Kater noted. “We're part of the Corps’ Omaha District, which is all of the Rocky Mountain states and the Midwest so, there's a lot of construction. And we have the U.S. Forest Service. Most people don't realize Colorado has actually the second largest concentration of government agencies outside of Washington, D.C.”
The nonprofit hosts frequent events and meetings, including educational forums on contracting, regulatory, technology and policy issues and publishes a weekly newsletter. The Smalls also hosts a robust calendar as a central point of reference for local, state and even nationwide events and conferences.
And while the five-year old organization originally started out just in Colorado Springs, its support and activities now reach a greater part of the state and into neighboring New Mexico and Utah, Kater noted.
“We have meetings and networking events in Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Colorado, and a team in New Mexico, in Albuquerque. And we're talking about doing some more events in other Colorado cities like Grand Junction and Durango as well as doing some activities out in Salt Lake City.”
The Smalls recently provided support to the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (Colorado PTACs), organizations located throughout the state that are funded in part by the Defense Department to help businesses procure federal, state and local government contracts.
“The PTACs get you all set up with your SAM [System for Award Management] and get you registered as a company,” Kater said. “And we believe you can then come to us where we help you plug into the community and network. We’ve also supported the Native American PTAC in Montana and the Northern Rocky Mountain Region [PTAC] and as well as other organizations.”
In addition, The Smalls also hosts a weekly podcast, designed to illuminate key topics, trends, advice and other important information for companies or public-sector organizations to prosper. Recent guests, for example, included representatives from the Southern Colorado Small Business Development Center, the Space Foundation, a realty company and small businesses—as well as SIGNAL Magazine.
As far as lessons learned from the experience of ushering industry sector engagement, Moser advised to not miss an opportunity to share information with someone.
“Never turn down a conversation,” he stated. “We've opened more doors just by having conversations. And the door might not be for us. You could come to us and say, ‘Hey, I've just won this $100 million dollar contract and I really need a cybersecurity company that can help us do XYZ.’ We’ve got people that we know and we trust and we can then put them in touch with you.”
Kater, meanwhile, said he looked at the beginning to similar organizations, such as the Huntsville Association of Small Businesses in Advanced Technology, or HASBAT, in Huntsville, Alabama. “I looked at other models to see if there were other organizations doing similar things,” he said. “There’s HASBAT, in Huntsville. In the Pacific Northwest, you've got the Pacific Northwest Defense Contractor. They're actually a really good organization that we've kind of modeled [ourselves] a lot after. We’ve been talking to those organizations and collaborating with them too to try and figure out [common] events.”
“We try to plug into multiple communities,” Moser said, “because you don’t know what the next thing will be. [If you are a company that needs help], I think it is being willing to go out and talk to people and be willing to go out and come to events, and have those conversations.”
For more information on the organization, visit www.thesmalls.org.