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AFRL’s Entrepreneur Opportunity Program turns people, ideas into new private sector businesses

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) --

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program is turning scientists and engineers into business owners to speed emerging technology to warfighters.

“AFRL is great at innovating new technologies, but unless someone, somewhere decides to produce them, nobody benefits,” said Sean Mahoney, Air Force Research Laboratory Small Business Office chief intrapreneur.

The EOP helps AFRL scientists and engineers set up private businesses or licensing arrangements around AFRL technology — sometimes even technology they have developed as an AFRL employee. It also includes a “take-back agreement” — a path for scientists and engineers to return to work in the lab within five years, if they prefer.

“Who is better suited to take these lab-grown technologies out into the world and do something with them than the scientists and engineers who created them? The problem is, how do you incentivize Department of Defense civilians to leave their comfortable jobs and stable salaries and start businesses around AFRL intellectual property and technology they may have even developed?”

Mahoney said the EOP idea originated with Ryan Helbach, former SB chief intrapreneur. It was stood up in 2016 by Ricky Peters, former AFRL executive director, and improved by Peters’ successor, Doug Ebersole.

“The EOP is built to function as a bridge and a safety net so that willing (scientists and engineers) can take their IP and do something that will benefit the Air Force and the national economy,” Mahoney said.

The AFRL internal job postings board has a permanent advertisement for the EOP. Scientists and engineers involved with AFRL programs, patents, and other IP can contact the Small Business Office for help creating a proposal package to submit to their Technology Directorate leadership chain.

“Once the package reaches the Small Business Office, we organize a panel consisting of entrepreneurial experts and previous EOP participants to review and vet the proposed business plan,” Mahoney said. “This helps ensure the best chances for success.”

There are three paths AFRL employees can take with their EOP idea:

  • License Air Force technology.
  • Create a new company using that technology to address Air Force needs.
  • Temporarily support a business already licensing Air Force technology.

The EOP process is split into two phases for those licensing Air Force technology or starting their own businesses.

Phase I Sabbatical: The employee retains salary and benefits while the business is being established. Activities during this period can include feasibility studies, arranging customers and funding, developing a business plan, and creation of prototypes.

Phase II Separation: The employee leaves AFRL and then can incorporate the business and license an Air Force technology.

AFRL also will pay employees temporarily supporting businesses that license Air Force technology.

Mahoney said no EOP participants have activated their “take-back agreement” and returned to AFRL.

“They have all been happy and successful with the opportunity this program provided them,” he said. “They enjoy being a part of something that is helping make a difference for our warfighters and for our nation.”

Jeff Graley was the EOP’s first candidate. He started Mile 2, which creates custom software for a range of diverse clients, including startups, Fortune 500 companies, and the U.S. government. From its beginnings in 2015, Mile 2 has grown to more than 100 employees.

“He helped us work a lot of the bugs out and find the potential areas for conflict of interest.” Mahoney said. “He started Mile 2 and has really grown his business by leaps and bounds.”

EOP relies on Patent License Agreements for AFRL employees who choose to license intellectual property from the laboratory. The agreements are facilitated by the Air Force Technology Transfer Program and its affiliated Office of Research and Technology Applications and its Partnership Intermediaries.

Mahoney said AFRL has granted an average of 15 licenses a year for the past three years, but not all of those were through EOP.

One AFRL-born enterprise preparing to make the leap to the private sector is the Networked Integrated Tactical Environment, which is being led by Dr. Leah Rowe.

While in her role as a science and technology advisor for continuous learning in AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, Rowe and a team of SMEs, engineers and behavioral scientists created NITE — a technology and training package that provides a “train like we fight” regime for joint Department of Defense warfighters who deploy on a regular basis.

NITE resulted from research set out to address training needs of Air Force unmanned aerial systems operators and their leaders.

“The training environment is a modular simulator infrastructure and human performance research environment that provides rapid and performance-based training for the tactics and procedures necessary to be effective in today’s air-to-ground war,” Rowe said. “If approved, the EOP is an example of how the Air Force and an AFRL employee now turned entrepreneur both benefit by transferring and transitioning technology into commercial products that benefit national security and economic prosperity.”

Her proposal is to expand an existing technology based business creating a Training and Readiness Division and center of excellence in downtown Dayton’s growing innovation district.

Elaine Bryant, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president for aerospace and defense and JobsOhio managing director for the military and federal sector, said the “ability to configure and run training scenarios as they travel toward an emerging threat is an innovation that can transform how we prepare our front line professionals for dangerous situations both on and off the battlefield.”

“The EOP enables the military to share this unique technology quickly ‘outside the fence’ with first responders while also creating private sector jobs in our community,” she said. “Dr. Rowe’s work is an example of the EOP’s wide-ranging benefits for the Air Force, private industry, and our region.”

Tim Sakulich, AFRL's executive director, said EOP is another way the laboratory accomplishes its mission to deliver game-changing capabilities to ensure the Air Force and Space Force, as well as the nation overall, maintain the technical advantage.

“AFRL’s Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program seeks to catalyze a combination of AFRL entrepreneurial talent, military technology innovation, and commercialization in ways that ultimately strengthen the nation’s technology ecosystem as a whole. We need to be relentless in leaving no stone unturned when it comes to creating competitive technology advantage for our Air Force and Space Force.”