WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – The Air Force Research Laboratory’s, or AFRL, Regional Hub Network pilot initiative, launched in February 2022, began its second year with Cornell and Purdue universities as peer leaders of academic, industrial and national laboratory partners across the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.
The network members have collaborated on science and technology, or S&T, initiatives, aiming to leverage unique research, infrastructure and workforce across the region.
While two regions currently exist, the vision seeks to establish regional networks in multiple areas, said Dr. Richard Vaia, chief scientist, AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.
“Right now, the regional teams are moving from stand up to initial phase of operations with project calls, member meetings and jointly developed intellectual property and data sharing agreement,” Vaia said. “These complement existing technology development programs at AFRL by emphasizing co-dependent research between members and AFRL scientists and engineers on high-risk sprints to risk reduce emerging concepts and prepare them for dual-use business opportunities.”
The AFRL Regional Hub Networks were established in response to the U.S. Air Force S&T Strategy, seeking a broader range of approaches to accelerate the transition of new technologies into economically viable products in the supply chain through innovative public and private partnerships, Vaia said.
“The public-private partnerships between the Regional Hub Network and AFRL is not a traditional contractual relationship,” Vaia said. “Using a cooperative agreement, the regional network of members and government staff jointly develop operational processes and project oversight.”
Both Regional Hub Network members and AFRL staff have been involved in developing project calls, Vaia added. These calls begin with the Department of the Air Force, or DAF, and leverage the region’s unique strengths.
“This ensures the technology has the most impactful dual-use potential, targets opportunities with existing business ecosystems and encourages cost-sharing from all participants, such as facilities, staff and adjacent projects,” Vaia said. “Leveraging existing capabilities enhances the flexibility of AFRL and regional members by reducing risk and the lead time associated with staff training and capital investment in new research and development capabilities.”
Finally, these activities build mutual understanding and insight across a diverse community of innovators — spanning the technology maturation spectrum and government activities, Vaia added. The new relationships will be the source of future solutions.
Understanding what this means from an AFRL viewpoint, Vaia explained three areas for enterprise value.
“One is expanding our staff’s network — being able to not just talk with global experts, but create and participate in collaborative, concrete work products with staff in academia, industry and small business,” Vaia said. “Defining the problems that are critical path hurdles and participating in developing the solution is why our staff choose to be scientists and engineers.”
The second is accelerating risk reduction of technologies across the first “valley of death.” This valley is a critical event when academic and scientific promise is initially assessed through the lens of business and product viability, Vaia said. Many concepts do not come to fruition; however, it is important for those involved to understand the “why” in order to improve the efficiency of the technology development process.
“This insight does not come from just scientists working with academics or program managers working with industrial [partners], but everybody on both sides of that bridge working together,” Vaia said. “That's what the projects in the regional networks are about.”
The third is experiential learning for the staff, merging mission challenges and technology opportunities in the unique AFRL research environment, Vaia said.
“Technology maturation also requires many additional perspectives, such as business and manufacturing acumen,” Vaia said. “The joint project teams provide experiences for AFRL staff to work daily with industrial staff, sharing our motivations and learning theirs.”
AFRL Regional Hub Network — Midwest
In the Midwest’s two-phase proposal process, a call must first be released, said Dr. Stacy M. Manni, deputy director, AFRL Regional Hub Network – Midwest.
Phase one serves to express the idea and receives immediate feedback, keeping certain criteria in mind, Manni added.
“Is it something that relates to the Air Force mission? Are there particular partners that are of interest? Are there ways that we can combine different ideas that are being submitted at the same time?” Manni said.
Phase two includes the traditional written proposal with a focus on partners and building the idea, she added.
The first year of effort in the Midwest region focused on the design phase, which began with the core staff looking to understand what AFRL wanted in support of the Air Force and Space Force, said Jeff Rhoads, executive director, Purdue Institute for National Security.
The university launched their “shovel-ready” project call phase first.
“The idea behind the shovel-ready projects was to essentially rapidly fund one or two projects as a way to stress test how we're going to operate as a hub network,” Rhoads said.
The first regular project call is currently out and emphasizes five technical areas, he added. These areas span energetic materials, including propellants, explosives and pyrotechnics; hypersonics; secure microelectronics; in-space servicing assembly and manufacturing; and space domain awareness.
However, funding projects is just a piece of the larger picture, Rhoads said. With a large network, it takes time to foster different areas and cultivate the network for long-term sustainability.
The point is to “show people the value of what you can do and show the interactions and foster and grow those — just like you're growing a plant,” Rhoads added.
The Midwest team, based at Purdue University, spent many hours thinking about the future, and Rhoads said he is happy to report a quickly-filling calendar. Many of the upcoming activities will include engagement and networking to create new partnerships.
Rhoads said many events will engage the procurement community, which includes Apex network, a new program recently launched.
“This involves bringing in subject matter experts from various technical directorates in AFRL and having them talk about their needs to the network,” Rhoads said. “They are tangibly there, trying to identify opportunities for AFRL personnel to deploy themselves temporarily at universities or corporate partners.”
This also expands venture opportunities, Rhoads said, including those sponsored by Midwestern state governments and various corporate partners.
The other key aspect, beyond just forming partnerships, is workforce development.
“The programmatic focus is not necessarily on creating new things … but really understanding what opportunities exist within the Midwest and making sure we're highlighting those who are partners as well as AFRL,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads said the team is also looking for natural synergies for growth, including officer training programs, research programs focused on national security and courses geared toward educating the civilian contracting corps or the civilian workforce at AFRL.
“I think at a high-level overview, that's kind of where we're at,” Rhoads said.
With much of the startup nearly complete, Rhoads said Purdue will begin focusing on evaluation.
“[We do not want to] reinvent what AFRL has done in the past, but take the lessons learned,” he added.
Rhoads said they have created the design and are ready to build it and either succeed or fail-and-adapt “so that we can be that unique niche that the Air Force and Space Force needed [in] the Midwest.”
While Rhoads said he hopes to see a project come to life and be used by the Department of the Air Force, it is important to build connections between universities and both large and small companies, which is what the Regional Network is accomplishing.
“I think that's really essential because we have these disparate groups of people that are trying to work together to get stuff done,” Rhoads said. “At the end of the day, that's what the Air Force and Space Force need.”
Manni encouraged people who are doing things within this sphere of influence to reach out.
“So that maybe we can help or get involved and support in some way,” Manni said. “And then, if there are other groups that are interested in working with different areas, we'd certainly like to help in whatever way we're able.”
Another resource Manni said her team is working on is a database of clearable students, or students who meet the criteria to apply for a security clearance. While the idea is in its infancy, the team hopes to create a list of top graduate students for partners to access to meet future workforce needs.
AFRL Regional Hub Network — Mid-Atlantic
As part of the first year, Patrick Govang, co-director, AFRL Mid-Atlantic Regional Hub Network, Cornell University, said the team went through an extensive process of learning and understanding expectations from the network including AFRL, its founding members, startups and companies large and small.
Through many meetings, including an annual meeting in October with over 200 attendees, partners participated in an active workshop where focus groups addressed everything from evolving membership programs to traditional challenges moving technologies out of academia into commercialization paths, Govang said.
“Everything we're doing has been very collaboratively built with our colleagues and the network,” Govang added. “And that's part of what makes us unique building what we call a translational center working integrally with input from the entire network.”
Our partnership funding program directly emerged from community feedback, Govang said, pinpointing where the Regional Hub Network can add the most value and achieve the most impact with resources.
“We look for that point of innovation in a research effort,” he added. “Where something is discovered that has commercial potential, and we want to advance that potential with Hub funding to create a prototype while involving multiple perspectives to help launch an idea into the marketplace.”
Govang said taking an idea, developing and feeding into other programs within AFRL, such as AFWERX and SPACEWERX, uniquely bridges a known gap between the research enterprise and commercial paths.
Through working with AFRL, Govang said the team has been able to incorporate the feedback into the program and expand.
“I feel like we've benefited from the fact that the AFRL is keenly interested in this hub model,” he added. “So that's one fantastic point contributing to our success, a very active leadership group who is passionate about the success of the hub.”
Emmanuel Giannelis, Walter R. Reed professor of engineering, Cornell University, agreed and said the team is thankful for the opportunity to work with AFRL on a new model of collaboration.
“One of the things that was exciting for us was that we were given the task of rethinking what a model of collaboration ought to look like,” Giannelis said.
One thought was to increase the impact, and Giannelis asked, “How do we make the resources that are available to us through AFRL … to have practical impact — what will reach practical applications?”
At the university, Giannelis said they are typically involved in fundamental research and rarely step into the application world.
“And if there are any discoveries that come out of this work, they rarely find their way into an application,” Giannelis said.
To bring these discoveries to fruition, Giannelis said they had to find a mechanism that channels them through an innovation pipeline by utilizing an ecosystem already available at Cornell and the other network partners.
Similar to the entrepreneurial model, Giannelis said the team looked at various ideas and made changes as necessary.
“But that's the beauty of being an entrepreneur,” he added. “Making some bets, looking at how things go, and have the discipline to stop them when they are not successful.”
Two major areas, Giannelis said the network is focused on are materials and systems. They have made a few grants, including funding a startup, and the team is looking forward to the next call for proposals.
Giannelis said the network is focused on a few ideas and ensuring their credibility.
“We need to demonstrate that this model is valuable,” Giannelis said. “We would like to see that the hub network continues beyond the initial AFRL funding.”
Additionally, the Cornell team is looking to finalize plans to bring new members aboard and increase network reach.
Giannelis said they are working on a request for proposals, receiving the proposals, reviewing them and awarding projects, including workforce development.
“At the University, we are in the business of education, training and research,” Giannelis said.
After a grant is awarded, Giannelis said the next step is ensuring that any discoveries resulting from the grant find the necessary funding to bring them to the next level.
“There is sort of this ‘valley of death’ that is being talked about where federal funding agencies will fund the work for fundamental research but not necessarily continue the funding so that the work makes it to a practical application or reaches the market,” Giannelis said.
The pipeline helps to take the many ideas and narrow the list down to the few with the most potential.
“And the model is to keep narrowing it down because as you're moving through this innovation pipeline, you need to make bigger and bigger bets for fewer and fewer projects,” Giannelis said.
A project can be funded at a lower level but end up becoming a highly funded one if it is successful, he added.
“And so, you want to make sure that you have a mechanism that allows these early discoveries to be funded if they pass certain milestones and make progress,” Giannelis said.
Giannelis said the hope is to see some of these projects become sustainable after the initial funding.
“We need to put together a group of members,” Giannelis added. “We need to have industry participation. Other organizations that recognize the value this hub brings to the table would want to become members of the network … We like to be able to demonstrate that this is really a unique and new way of taking early-stage discoveries and pushing them through the innovation pipeline is unique and other agencies, organizations, foundations including federal, state and local governments would want to join forces— that they are willing to invest in us so we can continue.”
And because the university works with S&T communities, which AFRL provides a sponsor, this ensures the innovations are of interest to AFRL, Govang said.
“We think our uniqueness is not only essential to our success, but it also provides a new door into the S&T community that may have not been available before,” Govang added.
To learn more about the AFRL Regional Hub Network – Midwest and its mission, vision and innovations visit https://midwesthub.afresearchlab.com/ or visit the AFRL Regional Hub Network – Mid-Atlantic at https://afresearchlab.com/lablife/mid-atlantic-regional-hub/.
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, 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 11,500 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.