AFWERX director discusses role of tech startups, quick innovation in Great Power Competition

  • Published
  • By Tim Tresslar

AFWERX leaders met with technologists, startups and venture capitalists at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, March 8-11 to discuss national and global security challenges. As the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force, AFWERX plays a critical role in acquiring the cutting-edge technologies needed to meet these challenges.     

The three-day event featured panels and fireside chats focused on providing practical advice to small companies about topics such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, cyber security, venture capital, foreign ownership issues and navigating the defense innovation ecosystem. The event comes as the Department of the Air Force undertakes one of its most significant recalibrations in recent history, positioning the Air Force and Space Force to maintain supremacy in an era of Great Power Competition.

During his March 8 keynote speech, “Chasing Innovation: Lessons Learned,” Col. Elliott Leigh, AFWERX director and DAF chief commercialization officer, said the department’s transition to an enterprise focused on Great Power Competition will require a pipeline of cutting-edge technologies from startups and military personnel to AFWERX.

“We work contracts—we run the front end of the pipeline,” Leigh said. “We do prototypes, and we transition those technologies, but there are other elements of this. It's really people that win the wars. It's Airmen and Guardians, members of our armed services. It’s soldiers and sailors. It's Marines. You're going to see the whole joint community here this weekend talking about this.”

But, while it’s critical to innovate, Leigh added that the United States also needs to field technologies first, before its adversaries do, to have the greatest impact.

“We need to quickly move those and get them into the hands of somebody who can do something with them,” Leigh said. “That gives [warfighters] an advantage—what I like to think of as an unfair advantage—over their adversaries in a wartime environment.”

Leigh reiterated that American ingenuity is the country’s “superpower,” giving it an edge that helps it win wars. 

“We know our adversaries want to tap into that superpower of American ingenuity,” Leigh said. “It's why they're attending our universities. It's why they're trying to buy into your companies. It's why they're interested in your intellectual property. It is our superpower.” 

Leigh provided examples of the U.S.’s adversaries influencing its neighbors and projecting military and economic power. Additionally, he provided success stories for each of AFWERX’s four divisions: AFVentures, Prime, SpaceWERX and Spark.

Also, on March 8, Leigh joined leaders from the Defense Innovation Unit and NavalX to mark the launch of the Joint Defense Innovation Space in Austin with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The joint workspace is located at Capital Factory, the home of AFWERX’s Austin Hub, in the Omni Hotel.

"This new space is a testament to the strong collaboration happening across the DOD's innovation organizations," Leigh said during the ceremony.

The co-location of these organizations is an effort to better scale the adoption of commercial technology across the Department of Defense, leading to greater strategic impact. Additionally, these coordinated efforts are part of the DoD’s focus on improving the demand signals to the commercial tech sector, making it easier for tech companies, particularly startups and small firms, to engage with the department.