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AF Ventures participants leverage new skills to support COVID-19 response

Members of the inaugural Air Force Ventures Fellowship cohort participate in a 90-minute startup challenge event at the Random Acts of Kindness Ranch in Napa Valley, Calif., March 8.

Members of the inaugural Air Force Ventures Fellowship cohort participate in a 90-minute startup challenge event at the Random Acts of Kindness Ranch in Napa Valley, Calif., March 8. The fellowship was designed to help bridge the gap between the Department of Defense and industry. (Courtesy photo)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Personnel from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Digital Directorate recently leveraged their Air Force Ventures Fellowship experience to help support the COVID-19 Joint Acquisition Task Force.

Kristen Reed, acquisition program manager for AWACS Block 40/45, Capt. Brian Wolff, lead engineer for Air Force Weather Programs Cloud Computing, and Maj. David Ho, deputy chief engineer for the Strategic Warning and Surveillance Systems Division at Peterson AFB, Colorado, were among the first cohort of 21 Airmen selected for the program. Fellows were matched to venture capital firms in the Silicon Valley area for a six-week immersion learning opportunity and to help bridge the gap between the Department of Defense and industry.

Upon returning to their home stations, Wolff, Reed and Ho used lessons learned and the relationships they built to provide meaningful support to the DOD’s COVID-19 response efforts.

FELLOWS TEST NEW SKILLS IN SUPPORT OF PANDEMIC RELIEF

Wolff’s task force team was responsible for evaluating technology-based companies and request for information proposals dealing with artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing and anything research and development-related.

“The people from our cohort who raised their hands to be a part of the task force were automatically accepted,” he said. “I think the task force organizers knew that, just by the nature of us being in this fellowship, we had exactly what they needed to review and evaluate these proposals.”

The task force examined many proposals focused on the use of current technologies to monitor public spaces and detect individuals potentially infected with COVID-19.

“We evaluated one company that could use AI and infrared cameras to monitor people walking past, and if a person showed an abnormal spike in temperature, the camera could send out an alert,” said Wolff.

With his recent fellowship experience, Wolff said he was able to evaluate companies more thoroughly and through multiple lenses.

“I learned how to ask smart questions about a company’s capabilities in regards to things like customer acquisition, customer retention and business models,” he said. “I would not have had that perspective if I hadn’t gone through the fellowship.”

Reed said the skills and experience she gained during the fellowship helped inform the rapid acquisition work she did for the task force.

“I led a market research team that looked at companies with emerging technology for rapid COVID-19 relief,” she said. “Part of my work involved looking at a lung UV therapy device and determining if that would be a worthwhile investment for the Air Force.”

Reed also assisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, with reviewing proposals for personal protective equipment manufacturing.

According to Wolff, the evaluation effort is largely “on pause” right now, as the RFI response and review period has ended, but he said the DOD has teams and a proven process in place if there’s a future need.

FELLOWSHIP BRINGS LASTING BENEFITS TO THE DIGITAL DIRECTORATE

Steven Wert, program executive officer for Digital, said the market research and technology evaluation skills the fellows have gained will be a tremendous asset to the directorate far beyond the current global health crisis.

“This will help accelerate technology adoption as we imagine the future of our systems vice relying on a requirements-driven process,” he said. “The reach-back potential for our Venture fellows to leverage their relationships to engage the startup and venture communities and introduce novel technologies to our program offices is a great advantage.”

Ho said the experience inspired him to help his division and the directorate as a whole foster a more innovative environment.

“There’s a big push for artificial intelligence and machine learning technology within the Air Force, so I’m trying to see if we can pull commercial technologies that we typically wouldn’t look at and see if there is a potential for collaboration and business opportunities,” he said.

The fellows also had the opportunity to share their government expertise with the venture capital firms.

“I explained how important it is for companies to take advantage of opportunities like the Small Business Innovation Research program and what that means from an investment firm perspective. It was eye opening for them,” Wolff said.

VENTURES PROGRAM SPRUNG FROM SBIR AWARD

The Air Force Ventures Fellowship program itself was made possible in part because of the SBIR program. Shift.org, a company focused on veteran transition programs, received a SBIR award to help build and run the fellowship.

“They had the framework in place and established relationships within Silicon Valley,” said Maj. Tony Perez, the AFWERX program manager for the Shift.org contract. “They were able to quickly assess participants and match them to places where there was a high likelihood of meaningful results.”

The fellows are getting access to firms that people work their entire lives trying to get into, said Perez.

“The willingness of these venture capitalist firms to host our fellows signals that venture capital is starting to pay attention to the DOD,” he said. “All of the things that Dr. Roper [Air Force assistant secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics], and others are doing is getting the attention of the world’s best venture capital firms and they want to try to understand it more.”

The current COVID-19 situation has temporarily halted the program’s in-person immersions. However, Perez said the Air Force team is working diligently with Shift.org to offer a virtual version of the program before the end of the fiscal year.

Wolff is excited to see how programs like the Air Force Ventures Fellowship will help shape the Air Force of the future.

“I’ve been in the military for almost 22 years, and the word innovation has always been touted, but never really been pushed until now,” he said. “We have leadership at all levels not only driving innovation, but being innovative. It’s a whole culture shift, and I think it’s just an amazing time to be in the Air Force.”