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Academy Research: Be Prepared for Opportunities

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U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Nine-point 58 seconds. Eight-hundred fifty-seven, 9 hours, 17 minutes and 48 seconds from writing this, a 9.58-second opportunity will knock as summer Olympic track and field events kickoff in Rio de Janeiro. And Olympic medal contenders are determined not to let the opportunity slip by. The mental, physical and emotional preparation is intense, all consuming. The stakes seem impossibly high.

Athletes from around the world are preparing now to best Usain Bolt's mind-boggling 100-meter time – and current world record of 9.58 seconds. They are following exacting training regimens, strict diets and visualization exercises to hone power and technique from block to tape.

What does any of this have to do with Academy research? Well, recall my Feb. 28 Spirit commentary where I argued that the Essence of Research is opportunity – the opportunity to discover, to achieve and to better one's world through knowledge and invention. And just as with Olympic hopefuls, this opportunity will not arise from chance or serendipity, but solely from planning and focused effort. Opportunity must be won. 

But how do organizations, scientists, and academicians train? What's our diet? Our visualization drills? How is it we win opportunity?

It starts with vision, courage and commitment. Then we build the infrastructure, develop the culture and climate, and create the necessary policies and procedures enabling us to respond quickly and proactively – to capture the opportunity that is ours.

While Usain Bolt's race is over quickly, USAFA is involved in a marathon: to educate, train and inspire the next generation of Air Force leaders. As any USAFA cadet knows well, this road is much longer than 26.2 miles. What's not as obvious is that the journey is bursting with opportunities to be seized. The opportunity is there to create new partnerships, build community relations and transfer cadet-designed technology to the government and private sector, where it can make a difference to the warfighter and to the nation as a whole. 

Much like an Olympic athlete's goal of winning a medal, it won't happen overnight. And it won't happen without the right strategy and vision, the necessary policies, the right mix of human capital, the important culture changes and support structures USAFA needs to enter the next phase of Technology Transfer, and move research from the laboratory to use in the public and private sectors.

We're getting ready for this marathon. The Office of Research is implementing new practices, consistent with statutory requirements and Defense Department regulations, to encourage researchers to seize opportunity. We have a business plan nearly completed, a communication strategy ready to go and plans for budgeting that will allow the office to fulfill its role within the institution. 

Research is an inherently risky endeavor – inventors have to overcome the risk of failure to find new innovative solutions. They constantly weigh the benefits of time and resources spent on a project with the other duties of being a cadet or professor at the Air Force's Academy. In government laboratories, where leadership guidance and fiscal constraints set the priorities, USAFA's research policy must be protective, must encourage risk and must reward innovative endeavors. It's a great balancing act, but just as an estimated 92 percent of Usain Bolt's physical exertion is used to overcome air resistance, USAFA's focus must concentrate on overcoming inertia inherent to large, government institutions.

In today's world, face-to-face networking is essential to building the necessary relationships to capitalize on researchers' innovations. The Academy has a network of partnerships that continues to flourish, even as the number of vehicles the Academy uses for technology transfer continues to grow. Recently, the Academy requested approval to enter into Commercial Test Agreements with companies, a chance to allow businesses to use USAFA's labs, equipment and expertise to advance their own technology goals. Additionally, the USAFA Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson, has given the Academy permission to enter into Partnership Intermediary Agreements to extend the reach of USAFA's innovations into the private sector. 

Unequivocal leadership at the Academy opens the door to success in Technology Transfer or "T2." With such support, we are creating a sense of urgency in transferring technology with the potential to ease strained budgets in Academy departments. We are inculcating the culture change that must occur to be successful. We are developing the tools to collaborate, establishing a creative, well-educated work force, and generating incentives to encourage inventors to move from the goal of academic publishing toward broader T2 goals.

T2 can pave the path toward increased financial independence by getting the attention of investors who will take capabilities and inventions into the commercial world. Transfer strategies require funding, but licensing technology from a government inventor is no different than licensing from a non-federal researcher. Royalties go to the inventor and the Air Force – a means of reinvesting in research and the nation's future. 

First, we must develop a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem within the Academy – developing a creative atmosphere is essential to growing a T2 program. As technology becomes a priority, culture changes. We're on the brink of a tipping point at the Academy, where innovation will go hand-in-hand with cadet education – at no additional cost.

We can leverage USAFA's role in Colorado Springs, and its status as a premier higher education institution to create more partnerships that can assist USAFA in its federally-mandated role as a national laboratory. The Academy is unique among federal laboratories, because all technology developed here comes from academic research that complements coursework. Support for these activities is ingrained into an already well-oiled machine. Numerous support entities within the machine are standing-by to make the next steps happen for future Air Force leaders. Cadets only need to open the door to find support for invention disclosure, patent filing, collaborative research agreements, mentoring or developing new relationships with industry.

All these steps – from culture to leadership to investing in human capital – require support from every level of the institution. When the entire ecosystem works in harmony toward the same entrepreneurial goal, great things can happen.

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