For finalists, the Air Force Spark Tank competition is just the beginning

All Spark Tank finalists pose for a photo with members of the panel during the Air Force Warfighter's Edge conference, Orlando, Fla., Feb. 22, 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne A. Clark)

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Ever wondered what happens to pitch competition winners once the judges have made their call, the comically large checks have been presented and the applause has died down?

The Air Force doesn’t want to leave you hanging.

The inaugural “Spark Tank” — a force-wide pitch competition for innovative ideas that culminated at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium last week in Orlando, Florida — wrapped up last week with the announcement that Air Mobility Command Tech. Sgt. Bartek Bachleda and his idea to redesign the KC-135 aircraft boom platform is this year’s victor of the six finalists. But this isn’t the end of the road.

Competition organizers now want to prove that this isn’t just a gimmick — it’s real culture change.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” Lauren Knausenberger, director of cyberspace innovation and head of the Spark Tank program at the Air Force, told FedScoop. “So now the onus is on us to build trust that this is not just a stage show.”

This means pushing the ideas seen on stage in Orlando forward. Knausenberger said all six finalists will be “sponsored” in some way. This may mean additional mentoring — one group will meet with engineers at Google to learn more about how they’re working with augmented and virtual reality, for example — or even additional funding. The winner, meanwhile, will get prototyping support from the Department of Defense accelerator program MD5 and the Airmen Powered by Innovation group will provide the $1.4 million necessary to equip the fleet.

But building trust also means being transparent about the process. “Not all of [the ideas] are going to be successful,” Knausenberger said, pragmatically. She used to work in the venture capital world, so she knows how this works.

Organizers plan to showcase each of the six finalists at the Air Force Association conference in D.C. in September as a way to show how far they have or, in some cases, haven’t come.

Proving that investment doesn’t end at pitch day will be key in building the program for the future. The Air Force plans to run at least one Spark Tank per year, Knausenberger said, which means the next finals will take place at AFA Orlando in 2019.

The inaugural edition, however, helped build excitement within the force for a program that brings down traditional barriers and allows the on-the-ground idea people to present directly to senior leadership. Organizers expect next year will be bigger and better.

“Everything that I’ve heard is that it was a home run,” Knausenberger said.

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Air Force, Air Force Spark Tank, Lauren Knausenberger
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