Each year, the U.S. Air Force invests around $4 billion into research and development of new technology for its fleet of planes and jets. Yet most of the sophisticated military innovations developed in their research labs rarely cross over to the commercial market.
In fact, the Air Force generates only a paltry $60,000 a year in outside licensing fees, says Vincent Lewis, director of the Crotty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Dayton’s School of Business Administration. That’s a figure Lewis hopes to move the needle on with the introduction of a new class at Dayton that seeks to accelerate the transfer of military technology to the civilian sector.
“We said, ‘Why don’t we bring engineering students and business students into the classroom, let them team up and try to tackle and commercialize these technologies?’” Lewis says. “It’s an extremely unique opportunity for the students. Nobody is doing this at the undergraduate level.”
LETTING THE TECH ‘SIT ON A SHELF’
Indeed, it’s not every day that the typical undergraduate business student gets to play around with inventions designed for flight simulators and war jets, putting their entrepreneurial savvy to the test. The University of Dayton is offering the class because of a unique partnership they’ve forged with The Entrepreneurs Center, a technology accelerator and business incubator in Dayton, Ohio that runs a special Technology Acceleration Program that’s helping the Air Force Research Lab find more lucrative commercial applications for their patented technology.
Jordan Roe, manager of the Technology Acceleration Program, is hoping ambitious students can help find traction in this area. To accomplish this, he says the center provides Dayton students with exclusive access to cutting-edge Air Force technology, as well as face or phone time with the inventor. If students come up with a viable idea, they’ll have an opportunity to apply to the Air Force for a license for the invention that will allow them to take it to the consumer market.
“This is very unique because it is technology where in some cases millions of dollars have been dumped into research and the development of it. If someone doesn’t take this technology, it will end up sitting on a shelf,” Roe says. “This is kind of a beautiful thing because it’s a perfect chance to teach students how to recognize the opportunity, take something that has already been vetted a little bit, and create something with it.”
THE CHALLENGE OF IDEATION
The class was first offered as a pilot this past spring at the University of Dayton, co-taught by Lewis, Roe, and Rebecca Blust, an associate professor in Dayton’s engineering school and director of the Innovation Center. It was modeled after a course the Entrepreneurship Center offered last summer to a group of 40 students drawn from several universities in the Dayton area.
The first part of the curriculum in the University of Dayton pilot was the “application discovery” phase, where students were asked to assess 12 Air Force technologies. It was a rare opportunity for the young entrepreneurs, who often have a zeal for entrepreneurship but run into trouble coming up with sophisticated ideas for startups, Lewis says.
“Ideation is the biggest challenge, especially for younger students who are 18 to 22 years old,” he says. “Many times in the ideation process, they are thinking relatively narrowly, coming up with ideas like ‘I’m going to start a mobile car cleaning service or a food truck,’ and it can be hard to get them to think beyond that. In this class, we were trying to them past that by giving students a little push and asking them to look at these Air Force technologies and think of them as entrepreneurial opportunities.”