AFWERX Challenge rapidly brings solutions to the warfighter
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – As the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force, AFWERX finds creative ways to bring cutting-edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to the battlefield. One of those methods is the AFWERX Challenge, a fast and efficient way to solve a mission-critical problem and create positive impacts for the Department of Defense.
AFWERX Challenge brings companies, academia and the government together to collaborate via workshops, crowdsource idea campaigns and showcase events to quickly find solutions. While the standard government contracting process can take multiple years, technologies vetted through the Challenge model move from selection to formal agreement in 12 weeks, on average.
“The Challenge process includes many opportunities for industry and academia to learn about Air and Space Force needs and ask questions,” said Cayley Dymond, AFWERX Challenge lead. “It is very approachable, even to folks who don’t have a deep military knowledge.”
Topic areas and capability gaps are brought to AFWERX from Air Force and Space Force sponsor teams across the major commands.
“Typically, our team tackles bigger problems where the user doesn’t have one specific solution or solution provider in mind,” Dymond added. “So our team does the market research, finds out what is out there and helps users tap into parts of industry they may not have connections to.”
Once topic areas are selected, the five-step AFWERX Challenge process begins:
- A Challenge Definition Workshop gathers subject matter experts from industry, academia and government to discuss and define the problem, preferred direction of outcome and potential solutions. All participants help create a Challenge statement and the evaluation criteria that will be publicized in the solicitation.
- A Crowdsourcing Open Innovation Campaign is launched to solicit solutions to the Challenge statement. Innovators from industry, academia, the government and international allied partners can submit solutions to a panel of DOD experts. The top evaluated ideas are invited to the pitch and showcase.
- The pitch and showcase brings together the selected solution providers and potential government customers to deliver a private pitch, followed by a Q&A session and demonstration to further evaluate solutions.
- The AFWERX Challenge team brings together contracting officers to expedite the process for selected companies to continue development and deliver solutions.
- The process allows for rapid deployment of these innovative solutions to the warfighter and the potential for any DOD entity, not just the initial government sponsor, to contract with the selected companies for up to a year after the date of the Challenge showcase.
“We interacted with several stakeholders, labs and other companies that we didn’t know existed and got instant feedback,” said Todd Newton, vice president of business development at Jetoptera. “That feedback allows our small business to quickly make modifications to your product and provide innovative products to the warfighter faster.”
Since 2018, AFWERX has hosted 49 Challenges, received more than 7,600 solutions and awarded $78.8 million for 122 prototypes. According to Dymond, the biggest AFWERX Challenge success story to date was the Sky High Relief challenge. In 2021, 56 companies were invited to pitch a new female bladder relief solution for aircrew flying 8 to 10 hour missions strapped to an ejection seat. The Challenge was also the first to award prize money for selected solutions.
Of those 56 companies, 10 were awarded approximately $100,000 and one company was awarded $250,000 under the authority of USC 3719. One of the 11 companies, Airion, has a female bladder solution that will begin flight testing in December 2023. The Air Force’s goal is to field a final product in the fall of 2024.
AFWERX Challenge is currently accepting solutions from innovators for several upcoming Challenges, including its Air-to-Air Refueling Mechanism Digital Design Challenge, until January 4, 2024. The Air Force aims to leverage recent technological advancements in automated aerial refueling to modernize fuel transfer systems for smaller, more flexible refueling capabilities. To learn more, visit afwerxchallenge.com.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit www.afresearchlab.com.
As the innovation arm of the DAF and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFWERX brings cutting-edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. AFWERX employs approximately 325 military, civilian and contractor personnel at six hubs and sites executing an annual $1.4 billion budget. Since 2019, AFWERX has executed 4,697 new contracts worth more than $2.6 billion to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base and drive faster technology transition to operational capability. For more information, visit www.afwerx.com.