AUSTIN, TX -- Aerospace Ground Equipment Airmen--AGE for short--are required to keep track of their equipment. While that sounds reasonable enough, the perspective changes depending on whether the paperwork is done electronically or hand-written on print-outs, and if an object is tracked via a technology like radio-frequency identification or by visually checking a serial number.
As luck would have it, AGE leans toward the manual options, according to Tech. Sgt. Cynthia Ward who presented the problem during the inaugural Spark Collider event at the AFWERX Austin Hub on Aug. 14 and 15.
Though not a unique story, problems like the one this AGE specialist shared were exactly the type of problems facing Airmen that the event set out to challenge and find potential solutions for.
Over the span of two days, more than 150 Airmen representing 50 bases and 200 entrepreneurs representing 100 Small Business Innovation Research Phase I companies joined together to see which missions could match up to an associated business product.
“When you’re truly talking about building out an ecosystem, it requires companies who are exchanging capital to be able to grow. To enable that, we must facilitate customer discovery, help them find their end customers with the help of government [points of contact] and actually solve problems that matter,” said Capt. Joey Arora, AFWERX Ecosystem Development director. “That’s how we’re actually solving problems for the Air Force.”
The event was jam-packed with activities that ranged from breakout sessions on the topics of contracting and the Department of Defense Ecosystem to keynote speakers Jeff DeGraff and Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
“One thing I want Airmen to take away from this event is that they can be part of the solution process--there are reasonable pathways that they can take in order to solve pain points that have plagued them, their career field, their base, their mission,” said Tony Perez, AFWERX Spark director. “They can take an active part in solving that problem and they have the resources available to them to get to a solution.”
As one available resource, the SBIR program was highlighted to educate Airmen, industry, and venture capital attendees on how the funding source relates to their respective needs.
“[The Spark Collider] is a great opportunity to talk to warfighters and stakeholders directly,” said Alex Brickner, chief product officer of SimpleSense, a company that integrates 911 paging data directly into command and control systems. “Usually, a private entity has to jump through a lot of hoops in order to talk to a single person, so having 40 or so different program offices is a really great opportunity.”
In 2018, AFWERX, in collaboration with other Air Force organizations like the Air Force Research Laboratory, revamped the congressionally-funded SBIR process by reducing submission requirements, accelerating the time it takes to issue contracts to under 30 days, and introducing “Open Topics” that allow companies to submit their commercial off-the-shelf solutions as opposed to developing a product for a more specific solicitation.
Companies in Phase I of the program must locate an Air Force customer and sign a memorandum of agreement in order to move onto a Phase II, which establishes a partnership between the organizations with the intent to trial the product and adapt it according to the end-user’s needs.
Following the trial run, the Air Force customers can decide if they would like to fund the product to move on to Phase III, which can be accomplished through a sole-source contract.
The event closed with Ward and four other Airmen briefing problem sets on the main stage to judges and companies in attendance for the chance to be one of the three selected to be awarded a combined total of $250 thousand to go toward a Phase II application to solve some of the issues presented.
“At the beginning of this event, we were asked to make one spark,” said Tech Sgt. Sean Walters, from the 353rd Special Operations Group at Kadena Air Force Base, Japan, after briefing a problem having to do with corrosion of equipment, buildings, and tools. “I’m proud to report that I got more than a dozen that I’ve taken away from this two-day TDY that I can bring back to the group and really try to fix a lot of problems that Airmen are having today.”
Despite the SBIR program being the main contracting tool discussed during the event, the ultimate focus was to address the problems of Airmen and persevere despite any roadblocks they may encounter.
“When someone from the Air Force says they didn’t know this was possible, that they didn’t know if they could have this type of conversation with a company or that a company wouldn’t be interested in what their problem was and to see that little glimmer of hope that there is a potential pathway to make this problem disappear--that’s really exciting to hear,” Perez said. “It’s exciting to see the direction we’re headed and the enthusiasm that it creates with Airmen all across the Air Force.”