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Out of the lab and into the front office: Researchers boosting Air Force technology commercialization through new path to business ownership

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – For nearly two decades, Joe Diemunsch played a key role on teams developing the Air Force’s combat identification capabilities. Creating better sensors for pilots to automatically confirm their targets much sooner than could be done with the naked eye, provided a satisfaction the computer engineer thought he couldn’t top.

Until now.

As the first person to officially enter the Entrepreneurial Opportunities Program, also known as EOP, Diemunsch is in the midst of a one-year sabbatical from the Air Force Research Laboratory. Launched by AFRL last fall as another pathway to commercialization, the idea is that AFRL scientists and engineers will apply their skills, and possibly an intellectual property from the lab, to start or help grow a technology company.

It’s a perfect fit for Diemunsch, who had a dozen customers for his grass cutting service as a pre-teen in the 1970s and always dreamed of owning a business.

During the EOP’s sabbatical phase, Diemunsch is exploring the possibility of applying his expertise in an Air Force technology – deep learning algorithms used for automatic target recognition – to help farmers. His thought is to build a tool that an agronomist, a crop expert, would use with data received from sensors aboard a remotely piloted aircraft to identify nutrient deficiencies, disease, pest damage and weeds.

Armed with more precise information, farmers could reduce the guesswork and traditional blanket treatment methods that lead to wasted resources. The tool could also equip the industry to better deal with anticipated new rules limiting the use of phosphorus to address problems with algal blooms in lakes and streams.

“The underlying technology has a very big potential to impact the agriculture industry,” Diemunsch said.

Behind the program

In recent years the Air Force has increased its focus on commercialization – the practice of spinning technology into the mainstream – which has several upsides. It can leverage the private sector to make big strides in technology the Department of Defense might need in the future, promote economic growth across the country and provide a revenue stream to the Air Force.

To be eligible for EOP, lab employees must agree 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 already licensing Air Force technology.

According to Ryan Helbach, chief intrapreneur for AFRL, 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.

AFRL has modeled EOP after a program run by Sandia National Laboratories for the U.S. Department of Energy for more than 20 years.

“EOP is part of a larger push by AFRL to embrace the lean business mentality that is so prevalent with startup companies, from clearly focusing on solving the customers’ problems, to embracing a fail fast approach, to getting early and frequent customer input and feedback,” Helbach said. “While there is likely only to be a handful of participants in the program over a given year, the dividends and benefits will pay off in the long term for the Air Force, local communities and the nation as a whole.”

The EOP includes a takeback agreement that provides the opportunity to return to AFRL within five years of leaving. Lowering the risk provides more incentive for scientists and engineers to commercialize technology.

AFRL employees have the option to take the sabbatical and return to work for a period of time before making the decision to separate. Diemunsch, for example, plans to return to his job within the Sensors Directorate before making his decision on whether to leave the lab, secure a technology license and launch a business. In addition to spurring commercialization, the program is expected to be a recruiting tool for the next generation of AFRL engineers and scientists, many of whom have been exposed to the entrepreneurial mindset, while providing new opportunities to the existing world class scientists and engineers at the lab.

“EOP is a groundbreaking opportunity for AFRL researchers,” said Air Force Technology Transfer Program Manager Keith Quinn. “It touches several key Air Force personnel and technology issues:  motivating new entrepreneurial-minded researchers; energizing current employees to expand their thinking about research; pushing AFRL technology into the commercial marketplace; and creating jobs and new small businesses.”

For AFRL employees who choose to license intellectual property from the laboratory, EOP relies on an official mechanism that has long since been in place.

Patent License Agreements, also known as PLAs, are facilitated by the Air Force Technology Transfer Program and its affiliated Office of Research and Technology Applications and its Partnership Intermediaries. Each year, the Air Force signs approximately 30 to 40 licenses, which contribute to maximizing the use of Air Force technology in the economy, creating new businesses and job opportunities and stimulating research.