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Spark Tank 2020: Funding the future of the Air Force

By Senior Airman Monica Roybal 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

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The U.S. Air Force innovation program, AFWERX, hosted the third annual Spark Tank competition during the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida, Feb. 26-28, 2020.

Innovation enthusiasts of all ranks, from Airman to General, as well as contractors and civilian supporters, took over the halls of the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel to attend a technology exhibition and various discussion forums led by notable Air Force leaders, including Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright. 

The three-day event culminated in the Spark Tank competition, where, for the first time since its inception in 2017, two teams were named winners. The winning ideas were the Low-cost Threat Emitter Replication submitted by 1st Lt. Daniel A. Treece, and the Weapons Loading Smart Checklist submitted by Chief Master Sgt. Gabriel L. Flagg, Master Sgt. Gabrial A. Venezuela and Tech. Sgt. Benjamin E. Angley. 

Six teams had three minutes to convince a panel of judges, which included Barrett, Goldfein, Wright, Toni Townes-Whitley, U.S. Regulated Industries president and Gene Kim, Tripwire founder, why their innovation deserved first place. The winning innovations received funding for personnel and other resources required for implementation. 

The teams spent the weeks leading up to Spark Tank refining and perfecting their pitches with the help of AFWERX representatives. This was the first year AFWERX members worked closely to coach each team and help them create concise and informative pitches. 

Daryl Gibson, AFWERX senior innovation integrator, explained how coaching the teams prior to their final presentations played a crucial role in the finalists’ stage presence and confidence. He said the teams were challenged in simulated Spark Tank environments, and those scenarios ultimately enhanced the pitch quality and helped the finalists hone their problem-solving skills.

“What’s interesting about the Spark Tank is we’re taking Airmen who may be maintainers, pilots or whatever their normal job is, and suddenly we’re asking them to be entrepreneurs;we’re asking them to be pitchmen and we’re asking them to be salespeople,” Gibson said. “We’re asking a lot of them. And it’s all because they recognized a problem within their tactical specialty and wanted to address it. Suddenly they are expected to have skills that most of them have never had to develop.”

One of the six finalist teams was led by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Caban, 1st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. He was joined on stage by Maj. Andrew Van Timmeren, 1st Fighter Wing F-22 Raptor Pilot, and 1st Lt. Marlene Myers, 1st FW maintenance officer, to pitch Caban’s innovation for the Portable Magnetic Aircraft Covers. 

“When I started working on PMAC, I never anticipated it would scale up to this magnitude,” Caban said. “I was just trying to push my idea for what I thought would benefit everyone in the maintenance field. It has been a lot of hard work and perseverance,because this week has been overwhelming, but it’s a great opportunity, and I have awesome teammates and leadership that have been backing me every step of the way.”

Although Caban’s innovation didn’t bring home the first place trophy, the journey to the Spark Tank competition has already resulted in local funding, which will enable Caban to continue his pursuit to mass produce PMAC for the Raptor fleet. 

“I have already gotten to network with so many people and really learn the process for developing a new product,” Caban explained. “This experience is going to help me throughout my Air Force career and even when I transition into the civilian world. I’ll be able to use the skills I’m learning here and use them in a business-driven environment. It really has been a growing experience for me. It was hard, but hard work pays off.”

Caban is one of many Airmen who have utilized Spark Cell Laboratories at their home stations. The 1st FW opened their lab in 2019, and PMAC is one of the first innovations developed from that cell, which was created to help Airmen collaborate and network with operational experts and top problem-solvers in industry and academia. 

For more information, email 1FW.InnovationCell.Planning@us.af.mil.


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