Innovation training empowers Air Force personnel to collaborate with dual-use startups

  • Published
  • By Jessica Casserly
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Phase one of the newly restructured Banshee Innovation Training program wrapped up with a challenge statement showcase at the MassChallenge offices in Boston April 27.

For the first time since 2019, the program, which is part of a four-year partnership between Hanscom Air Force Base, MassChallenge, and the Air Force Research Laboratory, took place in-person April 25-27, giving participants an opportunity to network with innovation leaders and industry experts.

“One of the Hanscom Innovation Team’s key activities is our partnership with MassChallenge, which is critical in helping us continue the development of our workforce in terms of innovation training and building a culture of innovation through programs like Banshee,” said Maj. Andrew Bettinger, the Digital Directorate’s chief innovation officer and Hanscom Innovation Team chair.

The 2023 cohort, the seventh in the program’s history, is comprised of 43 participants from the Digital Directorate; the Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence and Networks Directorate; the Cyber Resiliency Office for Weapons Systems; the 66th Air Base Group; and the Massachusetts National Guard.

“In addition to the Banshee training effort, the Air Force Labs program helps source startups that could potentially help us with some of our toughest challenges,” Bettinger said.

Traditionally, the two programs ran separately, with Banshee focused on challenge statement development and educating acquisition personnel on innovation resources while Air Force Labs focused on identifying startups with technology and other products that could help tackle Air Force issues.

“This year we decided why not merge the two,” said Vijay Sekhara, MassChallenge director of Partnerships. “We recruited individuals from not only Hanscom Air Force Base, but across the Air Force, and have worked with them over the past three days to develop nine different challenge statements, which we will use to source startups with potential use cases to solve those challenges.”

Startups selected for Air Force Labs will go through the six-week accelerator program this summer, with the Banshee cohort and other subject matter experts serving as mentors to help their personnel navigate working with the government.

“The merger really provides a benefit to practice what the Banshees have learned over the last few days in terms of interacting with startups, leveraging some of those innovative resources like the Defense Innovation Unit and the National Security Innovation Network, and really getting after our top challenges from the Digital and C3I&N Directorates, as well as CROWS,” Bettinger said.

Darius Bethel, a Banshee participant and the Cyber Systems Engineer operations lead for the Armament Directorate’s Cyber Focus Team, said he looks forward to working directly with startup personnel in the next phases of the program.

“I want to hear their ideas and see how I can help these small businesses mature their technologies to a point that they can commercialize them and put them into military use,” he said.

Banshee participant Tek Giap Ooi, Air Force Distributed Common Ground System technical advisor and the innovation chief for the Digital Directorate’s Command & Control Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division, said the tools and resources he was exposed to during the training will help with his recent efforts to engage with Small Business Innovation Research awardees.

“It was a great experience and eye-opening for me,” he said. “It’s a new way of doing business. We usually rely on prime contractors to do most of the work, so this is another way to add on to what we have and tap into small businesses and startups.”

In addition to helping Airmen connect with the startup community, Bettinger said bringing the training back to an in-person format helps Banshee participants more actively engage in the learning opportunities and discussions.

“This in-person innovation training is absolutely vital for our workforce,” he said. “The last couple of years have been over Zoom and we’ve made the most of it given the circumstances, but being here over the last few days you can really feel the energy of the cohort and see their collaboration.”

The 2023 Banshee and Air Force Labs programs will culminate in a solutions showcase event scheduled to take place in the Boston area later this year.

“Innovation is hard. We know that,” Sekhara said. “We want to provide these Airmen with the education and tools to navigate through that. We’re empowering them to be the innovation champions that not only Hanscom, but the rest of the Air Force needs today.”