Aerospace industry must look beyond the box

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Colorado Springs’ aerospace industry is limited by its heavy focus on defense needs, but it can surge by thinking outside that box and adapting to commercial needs, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Jay Lindell.

“When you’re developing capabilities to meet a certain government requirement, you may not be focusing on the private sector, commercial sector, commercial space and cybersecurity needs,” said Lindell, who is the aerospace and defense industry champion with Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade. “You get ingrained with one culture of thinking, one way of doing things, and it tends to lead your business to maybe not be as innovative as it could be.

“Think about new capabilities — the future — rather than just meeting current requirements that the government might need on a specific task order.”

Lindell spoke at the Defense Commercialization Roundtable event at Catalyst Campus March 23, which wrapped up Colorado’s Aerospace Week.

The roundtable discussions focused on how technology processes developed for defense can better transition to meet growing commercial market opportunities, and what barriers need to be overcome.

“Transitioning technology that’s developed for defense needs into commercial capability is not easy,” Lindell admitted, “and there’s a big valley of death between ‘Here’s the technology, it’s innovative, but how do we translate it into a real, marketable product that consumers will buy?’

“GPS is an example: It was specifically developed for a national defense capability, but all of a sudden, opened free to the world — look where we are today with it. Now, when I get an economist to try to tell me the impact of GPS so we can talk about it, it’s immeasurable. You can’t calculate how important GPS is to the global economy.

With the NASA budget and the defense budget growing, Lindell said, the time is right to transition defense technologies “into more markets, more dollars, more business growth.”

Steve Leisenring, executive director at Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center and a retired Army brigadier general, said differences between government culture and commercial culture are a major hurdle in transitioning defense technologies to commercial markets.

“Those cultural differences hinder to a large extent not just the transfer but the acceptance of that technology,” he said. “A lot of times the technology on the government side … when you go to commercial they say ‘Great, thanks for developing this — now we want to build it ourselves, we really don’t want to deal with you guys.’”

Joe Wysocki, founder and CEO at Artyfex Solutions, said the DoD needs to stay focused on improving its culture of communication and collaboration with industry.

“I’ve seen great changes from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when the relationship was very adversarial,” he said. “There are pockets of adversarial relationships remaining, but it’s much better.”

Leisenring and Shane Deichman, senior director of business development for Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., both identified requirements as a cultural and practical issue in tech transfer.

“With requirements, the cost is going to be driven largely by the use case,” Deichman said. “We hear the story of the $600 hammer, but you never hear what caused the $600 hammer. That was for an Alaskan command for use on a pipeline when it’s 40 degrees below zero — and if you buy a standard hammer down at Ace Hardware, it’s going to shatter. So there is a reason why there is a $600 hammer, but it’s used as a punching bag for how the government doesn’t understand requirements, the government overpays for everything.”

Process questions are also important to improving tech transfer, he said.

“The government’s great at development, it’s great at polishing the rock,” he said. “I spent 20-plus years in the R&D side of government, national labs, Navy labs, joint labs — and we’re all about making that perfect idea, but we never think about how it’s marketed.

“How do we transition this … to a marketplace that’s got a very short attention span and also doesn’t want to spend a lot of money?

“You bring the government needs, you bring the business development savvy, you know the market verticals, and then you bring in capital. Now you cluster these different diverse perspectives and … take this capability designed for the government for a narrow warfighter use, and cut off the top, make it modular, make it cheaper, mass produce it.

“Now we’ve got a commodity.” n CSBJ

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