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

  • Published
  • By Tim Tresslar

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – AFWERX, the Department of the Air Force’s innovation arm, met with technologists, startups and venture capitalists at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, March 8-11, 2024, to discuss national and global security challenges and the role AFWERX plays in acquiring the cutting-edge technologies needed to meet them.  

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 Global Power Competition. 

During his March 8 keynote speech, “Chasing Innovation: Lessons Learned,” AFWERX Director and DAF Chief Commercialization Officer Col. Elliott Leigh 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,” Leigh said. “We run the front end of the pipeline. 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 defense – the 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 – and you know this – 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 America’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.  

As the innovation arm of the DAF and a directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory, AFWERX brings cutting-edge American ingenuity from small businesses and start-ups to address the most pressing challenges of the DAF. AFWERX employs approximately 370 military, civilian and contractor personnel at five hubs and sites executing an annual $1.4 billion budget. Since 2019, AFWERX has executed 6,028 new contracts worth more than $4 billion to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base and drive faster technology transition to operational capability. For more information, visit:    

About AFRL   
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit