Marine Corps Systems Command completed the first of a series of prize challenges in April, awarding cash prizes to two teams for submitting innovative ideas to improve the Corps’ helmet retention system.
Prize challenges allow federal agencies to crowdsource ideas and help solve problems in various areas of expertise. Since 2010, the federal government has run more than 1,000 challenges and awarded more than $250 million in prizes to everyone from students and hobbyists to small business owners and academic researchers for their ideas, according to challenge.gov.
Ohio-based company Team Wendy, which specializes in the development of protective head-borne systems, took the overall prize of $25,000. The innovation prize of $5,000 went to a team of friends and engineers out of Seattle, Washington, including Barret Schlegelmilch, Maxim Khatsenko and Andrew “Kit” Kennedy.
“Prize challenges cast a wider net,” said Nick Pierce, Individual Armor Team lead in MCSC’s Infantry Combat Equipment program office. “We post things on FedBizOpps and often only get attention from standard [Department of Defense] vendors who check that frequently. We know there are other industries that have helmets and are focusing on how to safely and effectively attach the system to someone’s head. We wanted to look broader than the DOD marketplace for new ideas.”
The Retention System Prize Challenge kicked off in late January and remained open until mid-March. The PM ICE team stated in the competition guidelines that the Corps was seeking retention systems that are compatible with the Enhanced Combat Helmet and may provide greater stability, adjustability and comfort.
Knowing new night vision devices are on the horizon that will attach to the existing helmet, the team hoped the prize competition would provide a retention system prototype that could be further developed and potentially procured either through a sole source or competitive acquisition process.
“For the specific helmet system prize challenge, we were in contact with traditional companies and were aware of what was out there,” said Pierce. “We’re seeking new ideas mainly because new optics are coming out that will be more capable but heavier than the current system. We wanted to make sure we had a helmet system that could accommodate future systems.”
For Team Wendy, participating in the prize challenge was a natural fit.
“For well over a decade, Team Wendy has worked with end-user communities to design, develop and deliver retention systems that are now fielded by elite military and law enforcement communities worldwide,” said Jose Rizo-Patron, chief executive officer at Team Wendy. “It is an honor to have won the USMC/PM ICE Retention System challenge. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to share our expertise with the Marine Corps.”
Schlegelmilch, a U.S. Navy Reservist, had a personal stake in the project as his brother is a soldier who has worn the ECH.
“I got feedback from my brother about his experiences [with the helmet], my teammates and I did some research, and between the three of us, we came up with some pretty good ideas,” he said. “We’re honored to have been considered, and now that we have validation [for our ideas], we’re looking into creating the physical prototypes.”
The Armor Team is hoping for increased and broader participation in future challenges.
Like the helmet retention system challenge, future prize challenges will typically focus on ways to improve gear that is already fielded. The program office is counting on companies and individuals from other sectors who are working on similar problems to introduce innovative solutions.
“Prize challenges are an easy-to-implement tool we have at our disposal,” Pierce said. “It’s one more thing we can do to attack [equipping challenges] from a different angle—one more tool in the acquisition toolbox to get better gear for Marines.”