Volcheff overseeing homeland’s Security Innovation Competition

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Mark Volcheff became executive director of the National Homeland Defense Foundation in March, after the merger of two nonprofits focused on national security and homeland defense.

The foundation’s main event is the National Security Innovation Competition, held April 29 at the Air Force Academy. The group seeks to highlight the latest research into national security products with a national security application.

Graduates often start companies based on their university research.

Why did you decide to become a part of the organization?

The merger of the Colorado Homeland Defense Alliance into the National Homeland Defense Foundation occurred over the month of March. I came to the foundation as the executive director during that transition. There are a number of organizations, nonprofits and centers that are doing great work supporting the needs of national security. The Colorado Homeland Defense Alliance had a Colorado focus, but a national vision as we assisted government, industry and academic institutions work their issues. We found our Colorado community of interest also wanting national exposure and opportunity in that larger arena. The National Homeland Defense Foundation already had a good number of activities well aligned with what the alliance was doing, and they were well entrenched and networked into a greater national audience. The merger was a perfect fit to advance the needs of Colorado organizations onto a national stage.

What does the future look like for the foundation?

I think when you put two very capable organizations together that have both had an impact on meeting the needs of national security, you have to conclude the future is bright for both, the organization and the causes it serves. The grass roots programs the alliance was conducting — the educational forums, innovation competition, assistance to businesses — is similar to a portion of the activities the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center conducts. It should continue after the merger and be even better with the national perspective the foundation brings.

Similarly, that grassroots perspective coupled with what the foundation does with its National Symposium for Security and Defense, thought leadership forums with national leaders in government and industry, and the various philanthropic efforts with the (military) Family Readiness Center and 9/11 memorial and other observances brings a well-rounded focus on all aspects of national security and defense.

We are always, of course, looking to optimize value for our community of interest. We are always looking at new ventures to further national security causes. Because we are also located in Colorado Springs, we want to positively impact the city and state.

The National Security Innovation Competition was held last week. How did it go?

April 29 marked our 5th Annual National Security Innovation Competition held here in Colorado Springs. We invited university students from across the U.S. and Canada, whose current research has a national security application, to submit their projects to us. Tech reps from across the country conducted an initial technical feasibility review and then we selected the top 10 innovative technologies and concepts.

The 10 finalists gave oral presentations to a national panel of government and industry leaders. This year, the organizations included Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Raytheon was our corporate judge and Dorsey-Whitney, was our patent judge. We could not have been more pleased at the outcome. In addition to having the event for the first time at the beautiful Association of Graduates Building on the grounds of the Air Force Academy, we had more university participants, more sponsors, more scholarship prize money than ever before, and a two-fold increase in attendance.

All the entries were unbelievably creative. The event left no doubt that our national security future is in good hands with the unique and detailed innovations. The University of Ottawa came in first place with a device to mitigate blast effects on wood-framed structures. That product could have saved many structures and lives in the recent tornadoes in the southeast.

Notre Dame came in second with a biometric assessment tool using the iris of the eye. And Virginia Polytechnic Institute came in third with new security features of internet protocol addresses.

While these innovations were identified as the best, and certainly deserve that recognition, what is unique about this event is that all the industry and government tech reps that were a part of the audience may have found the technology best suited for their organization in the fourth place finisher or sixth place.

We found that a number of organizations attended not just to see the unique innovations, but to “cherry pick” from the best and brightest engineers and scientists to hire into their workforce.

Technologies that were presented at this year’s competition will take a couple of years to make it to our national security marketplace. However, there is no doubt in my mind you will see them there one day. I’ve received feedback already from a couple of judges that some of the students have already been contacted to discuss further developing their research and innovation. That tells me we’ve been successful in exposing these novel ideas to the right people.

Looking back at past innovation competitions, I know that at least four finalists in the last four years have already formed small businesses with their innovation making their way to good use in national security. Each year of the competition brings more innovation to light. That innovation creates small businesses, creates jobs and serves a national security purpose. It comes together very nicely.

Are there any other events the group is working on?

We are looking at ways to expand the competition to show case more than just 10 innovations. There is so much more research going on that we think we can make this event one-stop shopping for government and industry to be exposed to a greater number of national security technologies.

We think concurrent mini competitions that are functionally oriented such as space/cyber, UAV/robotics, biometrics/other detection methods might be a way for a larger industry and government audience to use this venue to see what’s going on in university labs.

We also think there might be an opportunity to highlight upstart technology companies that focus on national security needs. With the foundation’s focus on national security and defense, training will always be a key element to being prepared. We would like to help facilitate some of the fragmented efforts ongoing to create regional training centers for first responders, intelligence and command and control collaboration.

What are some of the challenge the organization is facing? How will you meet them?

Any organization struggles with being relevant and creating value for those we serve. We are a non-profit and we have no shareholders, so it is extremely important for us to make sure we provide activities that have value. When you consider the entire national security enterprise is our “customer,” that is a fairly big challenge. We’ve been very successful with the events we’ve had in the past. However, just like the threats to our country change, we must also adapt and provide the information, education, research and innovation and the forums to share it all to our customers. That requires us to stay engaged, ask and understand what problems industry and government are trying to solve. What we can be and strive to be is a relevant organization that national security professionals in all kinds of “uniforms” can turn to in order to find the answers or be a part of the thought leadership efforts to optimize our national security capabilities.