AFWERX’s Spark Tank spurs USAF innovation

March 5, 2019

Byline: Jordyn Fetter

Photo by: Bobby Mack

Airmen and civilians gathered around a laptop

ORLANDO, FL—For the Air Force to effectively innovate at all levels, it takes all the tools in the toolbox to change the culture—including a competition where Airmen pitch ideas to senior leaders and celebrity investors like Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner IV.

Spark Tank, hosted for the second time Feb. 28, is designed to kickstart a service-wide mindset shift by displaying how serious leadership is about developing a smarter, faster Air Force.

“I hear everywhere I go that every Airman has an idea but a lot of times there’s something in their way and they have to fight through so many layers to get things done,” said Lauren Knausenberger, Spark Tank director. “Spark Tank is a chance for them to go directly to senior leadership, make their pitch, and advocate for funding on their own merit.”

The competition prompted more than 300 idea submissions to AFWERX’s IdeaScale platform, from which leaders chose six to be presented on an Air Force-level stage.

Finalists chosen to take part in the competition came from installations across the world ranging from Fresno, Calif., to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and from career fields like aircraft maintenance and weather operations.

“When we come up as Airmen we have some unique ideas, but being able to voice it to the appropriate people to get the support you need seems elusive,” said Master Sgt. William Bell, 100th Air Refueling Wing accessories flight chief. “[Spark Tank] gives you that platform.”

The competition was held as part of the 2019 Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium, an annual conference that brings together professionals from across government, industry, and academia, to demonstrate the importance of innovation to the entire defense community.

In addition to Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner IV, judges included Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff David Goldfein, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright.

During the event, the six finalist groups presented their ideas on stage in less than four minutes per pitch and were immediately met with feedback and questions from the judges.

“This is a chance for [Airmen] to go directly to the secretary, the chief, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force and say, ‘here’s my idea,’ and have the AF leaders immediately give them feedback and throw support behind their project.,” said Knausenberger. “It cuts through all of the middle stuff, but it’s also very educational for the senior leaders because, in that moment, we’re very honest about the roadblocks the Airmen have faced before that time and we’re very honest about what it will take to get things off the ground.”

Following all the pitches, each judge submitted their vote for the Spark Tank 2019 winner and the audience submitted their votes on an online poll to count as a sixth vote.

After intense questioning by Mark Cuban and a period for each judge to consider their options, Master Sgt. Jonathan Maas, 52nd Fighter Wing emergency manager, took home the Spark Tank trophy for his Joint Chemical Agent Detector Renewable Energy Power Supply idea, which will power chemical detectors continuously as opposed to depending on unreliable batteries that require cumbersome maintenance.

“I’ve been able to take an idea that I built in the garage and now, about three months later, I’m briefing the top Air Force leadership,” Maas said. “I was always that guy that was like, ‘I’ve got ideas, but no one is going to care,’ and this process has changed my view on that. Now I know that those good ideas are going to be listened to.”

Though there was only one formal winner, each finalist was able to receive support according to the idea they presented. In some cases, major command commanders were able to allocate funds and resources, and, in others, the Secretary of the Air Force was able to exert influence on agencies who could bring an idea to fruition or resolve the problem that prompted the idea in the first place.

“At the end of the day, it’s about culture change,” said Dave Harden, AFWERX chief operations officer. “We’re trying to shift the culture to be more innovative and there’s no better way to do that than to see the passion in an Airman’s eyes as they realize they can take their idea and actually turn it into action for the Air Force.”