By Bo Joyner
/ Published September 25, 2019
Maj. Tony Perez, left, a Reserve Citizen Airman and AFWERX Spark director, listens as Tech. Sgt. Sean Walters talks about an Air Force problem during the first-ever Spark Collider at the AFWERX Austin Hub in August. The event connected approximately 100 small business innovation research companies and Airmen from about 50 bases to address Air Force problem areas. (Courtesy photo)
Members of the AFWERX team speak about accelerated contracting pathways for doing business with the Air Force during AFWERX Fusion 2019 in Las Vegas. (Bridget Bennett)
The 2019 Air Force Spark Tank competition judges congratulate Master Sgt. Jonathan Maas, 52nd Fighter Wing, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Maas won the 2019 Spark Tank competition for his Joint Chemical Agent Detector Renewable Energy Power Supply that provides uninterrupted chemical agent detection while running continuously with minimal user maintenance.(Wayne Clark)
Airmen participate in the Defense Executive Technology Entrepreneur Course hosted by AFWERX. (Staff Sgt. Jordyn Fetter)
Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson visits AFWERX-Austin, one of three AFWERX innovation hubs. (Senior Airman Gwendalyn Smith)
Air Force Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda (right), 22nd Air Refueling Wing, McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas briefs his idea to the Spark Tank panel during the Air Force the Warfighter's Edge conference, Orlando, Fla., Feb. 22, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne A. Clark)
People involved with AFWERX, the Air Force’s latest initiative to promote innovation across the service, believe Reserve Citizen Airmen are a valuable weapon in the drive to solve problems and enhance effectiveness.
“Citizen Airmen – both Guard and Reserve – are in a great position to influence and continue nudging the big bureaucracy that is the Air Force in the direction of innovation because they already have a foot in both the military world and the outside world,” said Maj. Tony Perez, the Spark capability lead for AFWERX. “We have these engineers, coders, cyber experts, doctors, lawyers – these people are uniquely qualified to bring the best practices from their civilian jobs back to the Air Force because they are already a part of the Air Force team as Reserve Citizen Airmen.”
The AFWERX website describes the program as “a catalyst for agile Air Force engagement across industry, academia and non-traditional contributors to create transformative opportunities and foster an Air Force culture of innovation. The ultimate aim is to solve problems and enhance the effectiveness of the Air Force.”
Perez, an individual mobilization augmentee involved with AFWERX since its inception in 2017, describes Spark as a “decentralized network of semi-autonomous innovation cells.” As the Spark capability lead, Perez encourages innovative Airmen to set up Spark cells at their base or to join a Spark cell that already exists. There are currently more than 45 Spark cells operating at bases around the world. A map of all Spark cell locations is available on the AFWERX website, www.afwerx.af.mil.
“One of the great things about Spark cells is we don’t tell people what a Spark cell should look like,” Perez said. “We don’t say, ‘this is where you should belong inside your organization and this is how you should report to your wing commander.’ We don’t say any of that. What we say is, ‘People are starting these innovation organizations across the Air Force and if this is something interesting to you, you can start one as well and tailor it to fit your organization.’”
Innovation is in Perez’s DNA. “I’ve always been interested in business and start-ups, so when I was on active duty as a KC-10 pilot at Travis (Air Force Base, California) in 2015 we started our own innovation program called Phoenix Arc. Once AFWERX started, Phoenix Arc was brought in under the AFWERX umbrella. When I left active duty, I went right into the Reserve and into an AFWERX billet.”
Spark cells are tailored to provide Airmen with the pathways and resources to solve tactical-level pain points.
“I spent my whole career at the squadron, tactical level,” Perez said. “I’ve seen the gaps in the technology we use and the technology that is possible. Our focus is on shrinking that gap right now. We want to challenge the hypothesis that we can’t have that because we’re in the military and it’s too hard to buy. Or we can’t have that because we have to go through this certain vendor. What we want is for Airmen from all walks of life who have a problem and see a solution. … we want to provide them with a pathway to get to that solution. You don’t even have to have a solution in mind. Just let us know where your pain points are and we can engage the Spark cell network to try and find a solution.”
The major said he has seen numerous Spark cell success stories in the past couple of years. “One of the earlier ones was at Travis when the director of operations for the contingency response squadron came to us with a problem. These are the guys who are the first people out the door if there is a humanitarian operation or contingency around the world. They are the first ones into an airfield to stand it up for operations. They have a finite number of C-17s so they can only carry so much cargo.
“Power generators are one of the things they have to have. They were carrying these old diesel, Vietnam-era generators that took up a ton of room," Perez said. “He brought the problem up and we got the message out to new technology companies doing generators and found one that is a quarter of the size of the old one and is stackable. That’s huge for a contingency response squadron.”
Maj. Adam Welch is a Reserve Citizen Airman who works with Perez on the AFWERX Spark team. One of his focus areas is how the Air Force can better capture the unique capabilities and experiences Reservists bring to the fight.
“The cool thing about the Reserve side is we have people with such high levels of experience and technical skill sets the active duty might not have,” he said. “We need to tap into that. We need to take their civilian experience and help translate that into the military efforts.”
Spark isn’t the only tool available in the AFWERX tool belt. Spark Tank is another program the AFWERX team uses to encourage innovation.
Similar to the popular Shark Tank television program, Spark Tank is an annual competition where Airmen pitch innovative ideas to Air Force leadership and a panel of industry experts. Hosted each year at the Air Force Association’s Warfare Symposium, thousands of attendees watch the innovation pitches to senior leaders.
To support Spark Tank, AFWERX launched a crowdsourcing platform called IdeaScale that allows Airmen to share ideas, critique submissions and vote for the most promising solutions. The Airmen with the most game changing ideas then compete at the culminating event, Spark Tank.
The Spark Tank project was designed to encourage intrapreneurship, retain innovators and speed adoption of emerging technologies, especially those developed by Airmen that bring game changing impact to the Air Force.
Air Force Reserve Col. Tri Minh Trinh jumped into the Spark Tank to pitch the idea of a single Air Force mobile application after the Air Force Connect mobile app was selected as one of six finalists to compete at the February 2018 Spark Tank competition.
“Spark Tank was very important to the growth of Air Force Connect,” said Senior Master Sgt. Timm Huffman, chief of content management and training for AF Connect. “The biggest thing it did was get our mobile app in front of the Air Force’s most senior leaders. Once we had their endorsement, it opened up a lot of doors – and revenue streams – for our product. AFWERX was also key in connecting us with the right people we needed for technical support for Air Force Connect.”
Huffman said AF Connect has now been deployed to every wing-level or above unit in the Air Force that wants it. “We have about 210 organizations on the platform, we have trained about 400 content managers and we are closing in on 70,000 users,” he said.
Capt. Joey Arora, a Reserve Citizen Airman, is the director of ecosystems development for AFWERX. He helps run the crowdsourcing platform that feeds into Spark Tank and other AFWERX programs. “So far, we have had more than 14,000 Airmen join our crowdsourcing platform,” he said. “There have been more than 1,600 ideas submitted and more than 200 of those have turned into real projects.”
AFWERX is unique because it encourages relationships between industry, academia and other nontraditional contributors as it fosters an Air Force culture of innovation.
There are three AFWERX innovation hubs across the country – AFWERX Austin, AFWERX DC and AFWERX Vegas – that help bridge the gap between the Air Force and the business and academic worlds. Each hub focuses on different innovation areas. AFWERX Austin, for example, specializes in integrating innovative technologies with Air Force programs, augmented and virtual reality technologies for Airmen training and rapid testing and evaluation with Air Force stakeholders.
In July, AFWERX Vegas played host to the 2019 AFWERX Fusion Xperience, where hundreds of problem-solving technologists, military leaders, business representatives, contracting officials and investors gathered to focus their attentions on a single Air Force topic. This year that topic was improving multi-domain operations.
“The AFWERX Fusion Xperience is an annual event that focuses on solving real Air Force problems in a six- to 18-month window using commercial off-the-shelf products and services that have military applications – often from nontraditional vendors who may otherwise lack access to or familiarity with military partners,” said AFWERX’s Mark Rowland. “We bring all the necessary ideas, people and funds together under one virtual roof. AFWERX Vegas is a place where the Air Force comes to do deals.”
From the Fusion Xperience to Spark Tank to Spark and other initiatives, AFWERX features a host of tools as it endeavors to change the Air Force.
“We are always looking for people to get engaged and involved,” Arora said. “As a Reservist, you have an opportunity to make an impact at your base right now. This is no longer about waiting for the bureaucracy to fix things. We have the tools and we’ve been empowered by the chief of staff of the Air Force to go long and don’t stop. It’s imperative for us if we want our nation to deter or succeed in the next war.”
Perez agreed. “I’ve heard from a lot of Guardsmen and Reservists that the Air Force is so far behind from what they see in the civilian sector. Instead of just talking about it, let’s try to fix it. Let’s make the Air Force better. There are opportunities for Guardsmen and Reservists because they have this unique perspective. We have an opportunity to change things. Leverage your unique talents and skills to benefit the Air Force and the greater Department of Defense.”
For more on AFWERX or to get involved, check outafwerx.af.mil. #ReserveReform