USAFA gets ready to CSURF differently

Col. Robert Kraus

Col. Robert Kraus

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- On April 12, more than 450 participants and visitors will gather at the U.S. Air Force Academy for the 11th annual Colorado Springs Undergraduate Research Forum or CSURF -- pronounced "sea surf."

The event allows cadets and undergraduate students from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Colorado College to present and receive feedback on a wide variety of research interests.

As this year's host, the venue provides the Academy yet another occasion to shine -- to illustrate our character, professionalism and pride, amazing student body, world-class facilities and wide-ranging academic expertise.

Even more so, CSURF offers the opportunity to manifest our essence -- to inculcate and demonstrate a maturing mindset when it comes to research and to build upon already realized academic benefits and begin achieving broader strategic objectives, creating new business alliances, federated partnerships and technology transfer opportunities.

It's time USAFA began to capitalize on its research endeavors. It's time we "See SURF differently."

What does that mean? It means it's time to stop looking at research as a solely academic endeavor and start finding the opportunities to develop the Academy as the premier institute for technology transfer and commercialization, all while educating, training and inspiring cadets - all while providing solutions to warfighter requirements -- and at no additional cost.

USAFA technology transfer often starts in the classroom with a semester capstone, where cadets are required to develop solutions and products to identified gaps in industry and government.

The process allows students to break barriers and develop business solutions that can generate royalties, create licenses and eventually lead to commercialization. Frequently the military or other agencies buy cadet inventions in bulk quantities.

Academy inventors have already been successful in their endeavors: Optical Engines is paying royalties on a patent from the Laser and Optics Research Center and the Aeronautics Research Center has also earned payments from industry. Several projects currently under development show great promise for future rewards.

To the surprise of many in the government, a federal inventor is not hindered from earning money once their technology gets to market. Inventors receive the first $2,000 of royalties from companies that license the technology. The Air Force Technology Transfer office ensures cadet and faculty inventors' names are on the "Made Payable To" line. The company pays the next 20 percent to the inventor as well; the remainder is paid to the organization where the invention was developed. All USAFA mission elements can benefit -- the idea or invention can come from anywhere.

In his book "Leading Change," author John Kotter emphasizes the need to remove barriers to progress. USAFA's Office of Research is leading the charge to change the culture from individual research to organized, focused research that creates revenue and develops important relationships with businesses and the government.

Under the current system, there is a flow of intellectual property and its accompanying benefits away from the Academy. DFER is working to reverse this trend and create partnerships that will bridge the gap from the lab to commercialization and increase the amount of non-federal revenue flowing into USAFA.

The research office is also refining its strategic communications plan with the goal of highlighting projects that will catch the attention of businesses. It's reaching beyond the mainstream media to industry groups, business organizations and state economic leaders to take the positive news of the Academy's research programs to the public using as many vehicles as possible.

We're creating a process to identify technologies relevant to industry and the military, as well as working to create a mindset focused on the transfer of relevant technologies.

Ever-tightening budgets and grim federal fiscal news means this shift in "thinking cannot wait." There is a true urgency in finding nonfederal resources to operate labs and to retain the Academy's top-flight researchers and professors. But the Office of Research can't make this sea change alone. It requires every one of us -- department heads, research center director, instructors and cadets to develop the framework and leverage all the opportunities that are out there.

USAFA must adopt a business philosophy when it comes to research, but one that doesn't overshadow our primary mission. Cadet education and academic excellence must go hand-in-hand with technology transfer to create a successful, robust program that develops the solutions to the nation's most vexing problems.

So, as you walk around Fairchild Hall April 12, look beyond the student presentations and identify capital venture prospects. Let's make the Springs Undergraduate Research Forum a new type of SURF -- one whose rising tide lifts all ships: academic, economic, warfighter support and institutional prestige.