AFWERX Bringing Startup Thinking to the Department of Defense

How AFWERX Began

In 2017, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced AFWERX, a program designed to circumvent bureaucracy and engage new entrepreneurs, including airmen, in Air Force programs.

Today, the program has headquarters in Washington DC, where they conduct research and manage a database of people who want to work on Air Force entrepreneurship projects; Las Vegas, where they conduct workshops and coach prospective airman entrepreneurs; and Austin, where innovative ideas are incubated in lean startup teams.

There are usually two reasons innovation happens. Either an inventor or entrepreneur comes along looking for a problem to solve. Or a problem comes along and prompts an otherwise-ordinary person to look for a solution.

You can argue the merits of each path, but when the second method works, it tends to cut through years of product-market-fit research and lead to fewer pivots and wasted efforts.

The Challenge Creates Opportunity

The challenge is, of course, that succeeding in the second route requires the perfect storm of subject matter knowledge, scalable ideas, and access to resources.

Funding Is Fast and Furious

People with ideas for innovation that would benefit the Air Force can submit a request online and receive an answer on whether it has been chosen for funding within 30 days.

In its most recent round of reviews, AFWERX awarded funding to 120 Phase 1 projects and 90 Phase 2.

Phase 1 projects usually involve a lone entrepreneur or airman who has a great proof of concept. AFWERX typically award $50-100K to each recipient to turn their Phase 1 concept into a prototype, with around half of the projects submitted receiving selection. Phase 2 projects may receive $750K or so to move from a prototype to an MVP, with a potential for receiving $1.5 million.

Successful Projects Can Save Millions

So far more than $73 million has been awarded, and today, around 80 percent of applicants are companies who have never had a contract with the Department of Defense (DoD) before.

From simulators that make it cheaper and easier to train pilots to innovative gear that’s lighter and more comfortable for war-fighters, AFWERX is supporting projects that have the potential to save the DoD time and money, keep military personnel safer or more comfortable, and solve other common operational challenges.

At its recent “Pro Bowl” event, the organization awarded 190 Small Business Innovation Research contracts over the course of one week to organizations such as icon, a robotics firm that can quickly build cement structures for use in forward-deployed environments. Other recipients included Kubos Corporation, which specializes in space-grade flight and mission operations software, and SaltyCloud, which produces workflow automation tools for security and risk teams.

How to Apply

The program is not limited to airmen — entrepreneurs can find a full brief on the Air Force’s top challenges on the AFWERX website. Every Monday at 12 p.m. CT, AFWERX invites interested people to join a webinar on how to engage with their programs. You can also sign up to join the AFWERX ecosystem to get updates on upcoming events and innovation challenges.

What Other Companies Can Learn from AFWERX

According to the AFWERX team, not only does their work significantly improve the speed of getting from idea to implementation, it helps America stay competitive. When the U.S. military can support, incubate, and ultimately purchase the military innovations of its brightest minds, it keeps those inventions from going to the highest foreign bidder.

AFWERX may have unique challenges, but their approach is worth studying for large companies in any industry. If you gave the innovators in your organization direct access to resources and decision-makers who could bring their ideas to life, how much quicker could your organization improve, iterate on those improvements, and grow? Do the inventors, tinkerers, and problem solvers in your midst have the support they need to make a difference? What could you accomplish if you decided that bureaucracy should enable progress, rather than stand in its way?

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