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Innovation directors connect Hanscom to leading-edge partners

Brian Carr, director of innovation for Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks, from left, Christian Melton, senior partnerships manager for MassChallenge Boston, Capt. Amanda Rebhi, chief innovation officer for Digital, Stacy Simon, Small Business lead for Digital, and Capt. Teresa Doskey, a contracting officer for Digital’s Force Protection Division, pause for a photo during a partnership meeting at MassChallege in Boston, Mass., Feb. 21.

Brian Carr, director of innovation for Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks, from left, Christian Melton, senior partnerships manager for MassChallenge Boston, Capt. Amanda Rebhi, chief innovation officer for Digital, Stacy Simon, Small Business lead for Digital, and Capt. Teresa Doskey, a contracting officer for Digital’s Force Protection Division, pause for a photo during a partnership meeting at MassChallege in Boston, Mass., Feb. 21. Much of Carr and Rebhi’s work as innovation directors depends on building and sustaining connections with key partners like MassChallenge, a network of zero-equity startup accelerators. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Maki)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The directors of innovation for two Hanscom-based acquisition directorates are helping to support critical warfighter needs through key partnerships within Greater Boston’s innovation economy and beyond.

Capt. Amanda Rebhi, chief innovation officer for Digital, and Brian Carr, director of innovation for Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks, are both the first to hold formal positions as innovation focal points in their respective directorates.

“This position was created specifically for someone like me who can come in and focus purely on the innovation efforts,” Rebhi said. “Mr. Wert [Program Executive Officer for Digital] recognized the importance of being able to incorporate technologies across 14 divisions and to move fast.”

Rebhi categorizes her responsibilities into three “buckets.” The first is innovation at large, the second is training and the third is partnerships and outreach. She sees these three elements working together to help create a shift in the acquisition culture.

“Training programs like Banshee or PEO Digital’s initiative LEARN Everything are really key to our personnel and program offices evolving,” she said.

In his role, Carr acts as a representative for the C3I&N PEO, Maj. Gen. Michael Schmidt, and serves as the key collaboration officer for internal and external stakeholders.

“My job is to manage the collaboration efforts across the directorate to leverage opportunities and synergies,” he said.

For both, managing their directorates’ innovation efforts involves staying up-to-date on cutting edge technologies.

“My role is understanding what’s out there and making these technologies known to the right program office,” Carr said.

One key technology area Carr has been examining with startups like BlackLynx and Axellio is edge processing, which involves manipulating and aggregating data and reducing bandwidth to move basic computation to the physical system as much as possible.

Rebhi agreed that connecting startups with the right program is key.

“That’s really my position, helping people get in the door, finding them the appropriate office that they’d be able to work with and then helping that program office or division work with the company more independently and in depth,” said Rebhi.

One startup Rebhi helped bring onboard is the General Radar Corp., which was recently selected for a Phase II Small Business Innovative Research program contract through AFWERX’s Virtual Pitch Bowl event held in March.

“While we started working with General Radar for what their technology brings to counter-small Unmanned Aircraft System air defense, their technology is now also assisting in remote patient monitoring in the fight against COVID-19, receiving the green light from the Food and Drug Administration in less than two days,” she said.

Much of an innovation director’s work depends on their ability to develop and sustain connections. With the COVID-19 response changing how daily operations are conducted, Rebhi and Carr are using teleconferences and Zoom calls to stay connected to external partners and keep collaborative projects moving forward while teleworking.

“As unfortunate as the current situation is, it’s also opening the door wide for innovative solutions that I believe will permanently and positively alter the way we conduct business in the Air Force,” she said.

One partnership that has thrived due to Rebhi and Carr’s efforts is The U.S. Air Force Lab with MassChallenge program. Both directorates have worked with MassChallenge, a network of zero-equity startup accelerators, over the past three years to bring this and other opportunities to fruition.

“I’m really proud of the work that Hanscom is doing with MassChallenge,” said Rebhi. “We are working with them on the first-ever accelerator specifically for Phase I SBIR companies, which will reap huge benefits in the future.”

Collaborative efforts like this one require both external and internal teamwork, Carr said.

“Maj. Gen. Schmidt wants to keep a partnership going with all of the other PEOs at Hanscom,” he said. “We want to get the right synergies where it makes sense.”

Both Rebhi and Carr hope to weave innovation into the daily operations of their directorates.

“What I’d love to see is people really embrace innovation,” said Rebhi. “I’d like to see them go out there and find a startup company that has a technology area that matches their effort and apply that to their program.”

Startups are also encouraged to reach out if they have technologies or ideas they think might support the Hanscom mission.

“Look at the broad agency announcements and if you have a solution that you think might be of interest, just go for it,” Rebhi said. “Put your name in the hat and more than likely you will get picked up through the AFWERX process and we’ll be able to work with you.”

Carr also encourages startups to connect with the Hanscom Small Business Office and to learn more about the SBIR process through AFWERX.

“Our main focus is getting capabilities to the end user as quickly as possible,” he said. “To do that we’re trying to insert innovation where it makes sense. The overarching goal is making sure that everyone knows there’s a central focal point and that we’re building a sustainable and repeatable process to bring new things into the directorates.”