The U.S. Air Force Academy is looking to cash in on its entrepreneurial spirit.
For more than a half-century, the Academy has been a hotbed of research and development for all manner of technology — related to military and commercial applications — and is now looking to this innovation for potential revenue streams.
“What we’re realizing now, with decreasing appropriated funds, we’re going to have to identify additional revenue streams to address budget deficiencies,” said Jim Solti, USAFA’s chief scientist.
Under new leadership by Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson and Faculty Dean Brig. Gen. Andrew Armacost, the Academy is looking to evolving curricula and a partnership with the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator to remedy that by bridging the gap between concept and commercialization.
“There are a number of pieces that have fallen into place, and now we really want to codify and formalize our technology transfer program,” Solti said. “Research is one thing (to invent a widget), but to commercialize it is a lengthy and risky endeavor, especially as a federal entity.”
The Partnership Intermediary Agreement, announced Wednesday during one of CSTI’s regular MashUp events, will allow the incubator to act as a middleman that assists in the transfer of technologies from the private sector to the public marketplace.
“This has been a long time coming,” Solti said. “We’ve been working not only to get the authority to do this, but also to find the right partner — so we’re excited to begin this.”
The agreement will also allow for the further evolution of a cross-cutting senior management course called Technological Innovation Management.
The three-credit-hour course “examines how to recognize, analyze, and exploit opportunities in the competitive environments faced by business, nonprofit, and government organizations,” according to the Academy’s course description. “Students will explore the resources, processes, and structures necessary to transfer technological innovations to appropriate markets.”
After students complete the 419-level course in the fall, they have the option to carry on to the 420-level course, which is a Management Capstone Practicum. During the spring practicum, the course description states that “cadets complete an original, applied systems research and/or development project that demonstrates their capacity to solve complex problems in an organizational setting.”
Creating a runway
The coupled courses have produced business plans and feasibility studies for a number of ideas originating at the Academy. Their work has also resulted in a patent for the Wingtip Rakelet, designed to decrease aircraft drag with “the potential to save the Air Force about $34 million in fuel costs every year,” according to AFA documents.
“We’ve been working not only to get the authority to do this, but also to find the right partner.”
– Jim Solti, USAFA chief scientist
However, the yield on such accomplishments has been diminutive because of the Academy’s inability to market them, which is where the Incubator comes into play.
“The PIA is essentially creating a runway,” said Capt. Bryce Luken, who teaches the courses with Capt. Matthew Schmitt. “This class is putting the planes on that runway. We have all these ideas and all of these amazing technologies. The cadets, day to day, are going to look at these technologies and assess them, assess the customer, assess the costs … so when we take it to the intermediary, there is a unique proposition for the externals.”
If technologies are patented and successfully marketed by the Incubator, cadets are able to receive a percentage of royalties up to $150,000 annually, Schmitt said.
That includes not only physical creations, but the development and ownership of intellectual property.
“The Air Force Academy has been doing research since 1962,” Solti said. “The reason we are so excited about this new program is because we are now starting to consider intellectual property when we begin these research efforts.”
He said the Academy has a federal mandate to look for patent opportunities but is not yet sure what to expect in terms of revenue streams, which CSTI can help determine.
Courses 419 and 420 are not new, but Luken and Schmitt make a point of explaining how far the curriculum has come.
“We’re looking with the new dean to harness the new technologies and the research that is being done here,” Luken said. “Now we’re able to start leveraging the technologies here at the Academy much more.”
Luken, a 2008 AFA grad, said the course has changed drastically even since he took it as a senior.
“There is a lot more sourcing of ideas from the Academy,” he said, adding that the cadets now use technologies like Google Glass in their academic partnerships with aerospace giants such as Lockheed Martin. “We didn’t have that when I was a cadet.”
By the end of the program, cadets will have composed a feasibility study (including analysis of market, competitors, concepts, etc.) that addresses potential business opportunities for a certain technology. If there is any weight to the project, CSTI can take over to identify target markets.
In the spring, cadets are encouraged to build upon their business plans and compete in business plan competitions (a team of cadets won a UCCS business plan competition in March).
USAFA Research Director John McCurdy said that despite the wide range of applications for technologies studied and developed by the Academy — social impact, environmental safety and stewardship, or more traditional military ideas — they all are born out of the same function.
“Over time we have taken a much more holistic interdisciplinary approach to cadets and research, usually linked directly to warfighter requirements — at the end of the day we are a military academy,” he said.
“We’re becoming more and more sophisticated. The PIA really brings a laser focus and an entrepreneurial spirit to that effort to be innovative and integrative with technology.”