A new approach to commercialization and workforce development: The story behind AFRL’s Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program

November 3, 2017

By all accounts, Jeff Graley had a solid Air Force career.

The West Virginia native joined the service as a clinician in the early 2000s, eventually making his way to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for a transition from active duty to the civilian workforce. Over time, Graley was exposed to intelligence operations as well as program management and an open innovation initiative at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

While all the work was highly satisfying, Graley had lingering visions of being his own boss. Then a few years ago, he was energized by talk about a potential new entrepreneurial program at AFRL.

“When AFRL started to discuss improving tech transfer and commercialization, and whether entrepreneurship was a viable new vehicle, my ears perked up,” Graley said.

With a new sense of purpose, Graley left the Battlespace Acoustics Division in AFRL’s Airman Systems Directorate to start Dayton-based Mile Two. The software-as-a-service company blends traditional software development with human factors engineering. It supports those who analyze data to make conclusions, from the Department of Defense to the business community.

Graley and Mile Two co-founder Jorge Sanchez have since spun off a separate company, Effectivity, to grow product sales. In less than an eight month span last year, the two businesses combined have quadrupled employment to 12 and will soon be adding even more people.

“I love a challenge,” Graley said. “These businesses didn’t exist before. It’s just like some of the program challenges I had in AFRL. How do I take it, how do I grow it and let’s see where we can grow from there.”

Although Graley left AFRL before the Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program officially launched last fall, his effort was essentially the pilot used to formalize the EOP process.

EOP is the newest pathway to address intellectual property commercialization and workforce development at AFRL. The idea is that scientists and engineers from the lab will apply their skills, and possibly an AFRL intellectual property, to start or help grow a technology company.

The details

To be eligible for EOP, AFRL employees go through a stringent vetting process after agreeing to pursue one of three avenues: consider the possibility of licensing Air Force technology; apply their skills from the lab in a commercial role that could help solve Air Force problems; or temporarily support a business that is already licensing Air Force technology.

For those pursuing the first two avenues, the EOP is split into two parts. The first phase is a sabbatical, which allows AFRL professionals to retain their pay and benefits while laying the foundation for a business. That work includes feasibility studies, lining up customers and funding, developing a business plan and possibly the creation of prototypes. The second phase is the separation of the employee from AFRL, who is then free to incorporate the business and license an Air Force technology, if desired. The third avenue involves AFRL paying its researcher, for a specific period, to assist a business that is already licensing Air Force technology. This mutually beneficial relationship provides the company critical support for its commercialization effort while exposing the researcher to scientific advancements it can bring back to the laboratory.

(Click here for more information: http://www.wpafb.af.mil/News/Article/1214568/out-of-the-lab-and-into-the-front-office-researchers-boosting-air-force-technol/)

Let them start companies

Supervisors and leadership at AFRL have long been concerned with the impact of key personnel leaving to commercialize technology.

Ricky Peters, who retired from the Air Force and now leads a medical technology company, Ascend Innovations, recalls a well-respected AFRL researcher who left the lab about 20 years ago to start his own company. The revelation caused a fair amount of panic until a colleague of Peters spoke up.

“He said this was a good thing: the new company will be part of the local economy, it will support AFRL and we will still have access to the researcher,” said Peters, who was executive director of AFRL when the idea for a formal EOP began percolating several years ago“That was something that stuck in my mind.”

By 2014, a major shift was happening within the Department of Defense as the importance of both commercialization and workforce development were both coming into the spotlight. So, Peters threw the idea for EOP on the table.

“A really solid organization, in my mind, grows more leaders than they have positions for, and so what do you do with those really good leaders?” Peters said. “I think you let them go out and start companies. Not only that, but if something doesn’t work out for them you bring them back.”

Ryan Helbach, now chief intrapreneur for AFRL, took the idea and with a group of others ran with it. He found getting the program to pass legal muster was the biggest challenge.

“AFRL had the authority to do something like this, it would just need to be clearly spelled out and address a variety of potential issues,” Helbach said. “It took a lot of work, support and ingenuity across different organizations to make this a reality. The first researcher I spoke to about EOP was adamant it would never happen. But here we are.”

Through EOP, researchers are exposed to business practices before making the commitment to start a company. Those who end up returning to AFRL bring back knowledge and practices that can help drive better outcomes for the Air Force.

“What will make this successful is that it wasn’t pushed down by leadership,” Peters said. “EOP was built by the people who would use the program and were excited about it.”

Another vehicle to drive commercialization

AFRL invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually into research and if it doesn’t move into the commercial sector, the Air Force never really gets the benefit, according to William “Bill” Harrison, director of the Small Business Directorate at AFRL. The problem is historic for the Air Force: technology that goes nowhere, patents that are never used.

Commercialization not only helps get technology to the warfighter, businesses often make improvements and bring down the cost. Having the AFRL researcher be part of the process increases the probability of technology being put to use.

“EOP is another method of getting that research, that investment, out of our lab and into the commercial sector,” Harrison said. “It’s rare for something to get from the lab straight to the warfighter. It has to get into that industrial base.”

EOP is modeled after a program at Sandia National Labs, which is run for the Department of Energy. At Sandia, it took almost 20 years to produce a large pile of documented successes. AFRL officials expect the commercialization payoff from EOP to be spread well over the long term, as it will take years to get people into the pipeline and build companies.

The program also is just starting to become a recruiting tool.

“Over time, I think you’ll see this is really going to ‘amp up’ our game across the board,” Harrison said.

Joe Cogliano is a technical writer who works on-site at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to support outreach and communications for the AFRL Small Business Office.