|DI: Putting innovation on fast track
Innovation has always been important in warfare, and in a world where technology
changes rapidly, the military looks to think tanks to ensure war fighters have the best
tools and quickly...
For an organization that didn’t even open its doors until 2014, what’s happened
since then is a strong indication of the value of its work.
The Doolittle Institute, a think tank that launched in Fort Walton Beach with $1.5
million in funding from the Air Force Research Lab Munitions Directorate, is on a
Last month Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced that DI would get $100,000 of the
$1.8 million awarded through the Florida Defense Support Task Force Grant
Program for seven defense projects across 13 counties.
“It’s important to note the state of Florida has recognized the value of what we’re
doing, bringing in companies, connecting entrepreneurs, bringing in non-defense
teams,” said DI executive director Steve Butler.
Indeed, the grant is just part of the story about cutting-edge DI, which today has a
growing operation in Tampa, collaboration agreements with universities and research
organizations, and multimillion-dollar funding expected to double this year.
Conceived in 2012, the Doolittle Institute was incorporated in Florida as a non-profit.
It opened its 6,000 square foot Fort Walton Beach facility on Sept. 8, 2014, and now
has seven people working there.
Its charter is to create an innovative environment for bringing together the best minds
of industry, academia, and government to collaborate and find solutions to the
toughest science and technology challenges faced by the Air Force Research Lab
Munitions Directorate (AFRL/RW).
The concept behind DI has been around for a long time. It’s a way for the military to
try new concepts outside the normal acquisition process, which can be slow and filled
with red tape. The goal is to get the best tools possible into the hands of the nation’s
war fighters as quickly as possible.
Butler said that on any given day at DI you’ll find people from AFRL, the test wing,
program offices, people from Hurlburt Field and others.
At the heart of DI’s mission is technology transfer, and it works both ways.
Technology developed by the military can find its way into the public sector and
public sector work can find its way faster into the military.
There is proven value in removing creative teams from the bureaucratic arena and
putting them in an environment with fewer rules and restrictions to do “innovative
sprints,” said Butler.
“That allows you to try things faster, allows ideas to be tested faster and fail faster,”
Doolittle Institute is the fourth military/business/educational collaborative organization
funded by the Air Force. The first, founded in 2002, is the Wright Brothers Institute
near Dayton, Ohio, funded by AFRL at Wright-Pattterson Air Force Base.
Another one in Rome, N.Y., is the Griffiss Institute, created through a partnership with
the AFRL’s Information Directorate at Griffiss Air Force Base before that central New
York base closed. Griffiss Institute continues as an AFRL partner with a focus on
A third organization, near Albuquerque, N.M., is the Phillips Technology Institute. It’s
partnered with AFRL’s Directed Energy and Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland
Air Force Base.
The Air Force learned long ago the value of civilian science and technology experts.
World War II underscored the important role of science and technology in modern
warfare, and showed that much of the needed expertise was outside the military.
One organizations that owes its birth to that collaboration is RAND Corp., one of the
world’s original think tanks. In its early years RAND was most notable for thinking
outside the box. Originally part of Douglas Aircraft, it was spun off and over time
assembled a unique team of researchers committed to interdisciplinary cooperation.
Collaboration with entities “outside the fence,” along with legislation that allowed
academia and companies to benefit from that research, helped keep the United
States a world leader in military and civilian technology.
Doolittle Institute is a result of that long list of outside the box, outside the fence
DI’s work with Eglin quickly got the attention of the U.S. Special Operations Command
at McDill Air Force Base. It would eventually result in the establishment of a DI-
managed office in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood.
Called SOFWERX, it also brings a diverse group of people together to address the
technological needs of America’s special operations forces, said Butler. According to
Butler, SOCOM acquisition chief James Guerts is a believer in “failing faster” and
moving on to try something different for a more agile acquisition process.
“There’s value in doing things quickly,” said Butler, especially for SOCOM, which is
willing to take chances to get things to war fighters quickly.
SOFWERX is administered by DI under a Partnership Intermediary Agreement.
Congress created PIAs to facilitated communications between government agencies,
the private sector, academia and general public.
The DI subsidiary opened in 2015 in an old brick building that makes it easier for the
technology community to work with SOCOM in a neutral meeting space outside the
more rigid confines of a military base. It has 10 employees, but Butler said it’s likely to
double its size in the future.
In Tampa there are facilities for meetings big and small, breakout rooms and, rapid
prototyping equipment, including laser cutters, 3D printers and more, said Butler.
Ideas can come from the military, contractors or outsiders who walk in the front door.
It puts them with folks plugged into the acquisition process.
At any given time the facility can have company officials, researchers, academics and
others collaborating. A project given a preliminary go-ahead may result in a
prototype. That can lead to a more formal acquisition.
While they don’t discuss much of what happens at the think tanks, one project that
has been publicized is TALOS, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit. Some of the
work now involves developing the underlayer suit that will be comfortable - one
version even has cooling fins. In this type of environment, they can tinkering with it
and make adjustments as they move forward until it works as intended.
What’s to come
The Doolittle team will use the Florida grant to identify Small Business Innovation
Research recipients who can help accelerate commercialization of new products and
bring them to market, based on DoD technologies.
“The state’s funding for this grant will bolsters DI's efforts, create economic
development and demonstrate the State of Florida's commitment to Air Force
research and technology programs,” Butler said.
More is also in store. Sid Saunders, a consultant for DI, said long-range plans call for
bringing a rapid prototyping capability to the Fort Walton Beach operation, like in
More collaboration partners is also highly likely. Currently DI has collaboration
contracts with multiple universities in the Southeast, including the University of
Florida, University of Central Florida, Florida State University, University of South
Florida, Auburn University, and Georgia Tech.
The collaborative agreements allow the military to fund work with those universities
One of the organizations working with DI has become particularly well-known: The
Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Pensacola.
Sixteen months ago the not-for-profit IHMC and DI signed an affiliation agreement to
enable the them to work together to achieve common goals, according to Ken Ford,
president and CEO of IHMC.
“IHMC and DI have taken the opportunity to explore several areas of collaboration,
including bringing the leadership of IHMC and AFRL/RW together to explore joint
research interests and utilizing IHMC’s Concept Mapping expertise to display tech
transfer tools on the DI website,” said Ford. “In fact, one of the most interesting joint
projects involved the area of tech transfer.”
How long will they work together?
“The expectation is that DI and IHMC will continue to collaborate on an ongoing
basis,” he said.
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Why name it Doolittle?
Col. Jimmy Doolittle flew into history at America’s darkest hour when he led a
bombing raid on the Japanese homeland in April 1942, four months after the attack
on Pearl Harbor.
Even before the raid that would boost U.S. morale and earn the future general the
Medal of Honor, Doolittle was accomplished. He’d earned a doctorate in aeronautics
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and set multiple flying records. One big
achievement was developing instrument flying used to this day. He was the first to
test the now ubiquitous artificial horizon in an instrument panel.
“He was maybe the only person who could have made that raid happen,” said Steve
Butler, director of the Doolittle Institute in Fort Walton Beach. Doolittle hallmarks of
speed, innovation and solutions have provided the institute with words to live by as it
works to lift the entire region by fusing military prowess, technological breakthroughs,
business acumen and education.