When U.S. Customs and Border Protection set out last year to stop drug dealers from sending fentanyl and other opiates into the U.S. via mail, the scale of their work was enormous: monitoring nearly 1.5 million incoming packages every day.
“Obviously, you can’t inspect every one of them,” said CBP’s Manuel Garza. “We needed a novel approach … an innovative solution.”
And that meant they had to run a novel kind of procurement, too, using a government technology challenge. But will it be enough?
Because fentanyl is so potent – just 3 milligrams of the synthetic drug constitutes a lethal dose – high-dollar quantities can be shipped in small packages.
“We need something that can detect the presence of opioids in a package without having to open it up,” Garza told HSToday. “Honestly, a K9 can often do that, but again, because of the scale, we can’t do that… We need an automated alternative.”
All incoming international packages arrive at one of five CBP service centers, where they are fed into the mail system. They’re inspected first with radiation detectors, but often by the container or pallet-load, Garza said. Parcels identified as high risk because of information about the sender or recipient are taken out of the mail flow for physical inspection, often including canine detection. But that’s just a tiny fraction of the throughput – and it’s not stopping enough of the deadly traffic in fentanyl.
“No one has ever developed technology that can detect contraband the way a dog’s nose can … There’s nothing in the market right now that can do this,” said Garza. And that means it would be pointless to run a conventional procurement.
“When you do a regular procurement, you get the same vendors with the same solutions they already have on the market,” he said.
Instead, CBP chose for the first time ever to run a procurement challenge – a contest between would-be vendors to develop cutting-edge new technology. The winners get prize money and the chance to address a new government market.
Garza, who’s running the challenge for the agency, said the contest would play out in two stages. Competitors would first compose a written submission laying out their idea. Garza said they expected that contestants would use some combination of inspection equipment that could photograph, X-ray or even sniff the parcels as they passed into the mail system, and artificial intelligence or machine learning that would identify suspect parcels based on characteristics such as labeling, dimensions or packaging.
“They can’t use any information about the sender or recipient that isn’t right there on the parcel itself,” Garza said, such as information from government or private sector databases. “CBP already has a robust system capable of doing that,” he told a recent webinar for would-be contestants.
Eight winners get $100,000 each and the agency’s help to complete the second stage: Developing a functional prototype and getting it ready for government testing within 14 weeks.
Garza said the aim of the challenge was in part to attract contestants who weren’t part of the traditional government contracting community. “A lot of university-based academic teams … have registered their interest,” he said.
The winning finalist gets $500,000 and the runner up gets $250,000 – very small amounts in government procurement terms. But does that matter?
Garza points out that there is a large market, both in the U.S. and abroad, for such technology, especially if it can – down the line – be adapted to detect other threats.
“Keep in mind that even though it’s only five locations, we do have nine mail facilities,” he told the webinar. “We have another 28 express facilities throughout the U.S., and the postal service has thousands of mail facilities where this technology could be used at.” There’s a possible international market as well, he pointed out.
And if the solution is adaptable it will continue being desirable, even when the agency is dealing with the next threat in the mail.
“Five years ago, the problem we had was with meth; today, it’s opioids, and in three more years we might be facing another battle. So please keep in mind what we’re trying to figure out that can work today but can also be adaptable for the future,” he said.
Although it’s the first time CBP has used a technology challenge, it’s not a new technique in other parts of the department. For years, the DHS Science and Technology Directorate has used such challenges — and their modest prize monies — to support the development of new technologies for first responders.
As DHS’ first-ever Chief Commercialization Officer Thomas Cellucci explained, the real prize isn’t the money, but the chance to address a new requirement in the government marketplace.
“There are 24-25 million first responders in the U.S.,” he told HS Today. “At Harvard Business School we would call that a big g–damn market.”
All the private sector wants and needs, he said, is “a set of requirements and a market.”
Still, the challenge by itself won’t be enough, Cellucci said. A big part of the problem is that there is very poor visibility on the part of federal officials into research that’s already going on. “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
It’s something Cellucci said he became aware of when he helped create the National Interagency Confederation for Biological Research. This eight-agency board was designed to ensure that the different civilian and military parts of the government each knew what the others were up to when it came to biomedical research with possible security impact.
“There were stovepipes within stovepipes, even within a single directorate or office,” said Cellucci, “You’d be amazed … Money was being spent in many different places to do the same damn thing.” When it comes to cutting-edge technologies, “The vast majority of government people don’t even know what’s available in the federal government, let alone the private sector … Govies need to scour the marketplace.”
Similarly, the American Security Challenge, founded in 2007 in part by HSToday owner Kristina Tanasichuk, also sought to match challenges faced by components within DHS to innovators seeking to address the problem. Working closely with then Under Secretary of Science & Technology Rear Admiral Jay Cohen (ret.), entrants presented their company and their solutions to many of the issues DHS still faces.
“We could not get the department to award any contracts or convey any money at the time so the entrants presented to venture capitalists who were looking to find their next investment,” explained Tanasichuk, CEO of the Government Technology & Services Coalition who worked closely on the project. “My vision was to develop such challenges across the department to move quickly but perhaps, more importantly, develop the market for emerging tech at DHS. Unfortunately, the concept of ‘challenges’ did not really take off until the last few years. With the change in administration and leadership the concept was put on the back burner.”