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CENTCOM plans ‘Shark Tank’-like innovation contest at MacDill AFB

MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. (Luis Santana/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

Google and SpaceX are coming to Tampa to help pick the next big military innovation for U.S. Central Command.

MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday detailed plans for a competition dubbed the CENTCOM Innovation Oasis, in which service members and civilian employees can put forth ideas to improve operations at the Tampa-based command, which oversees U.S. military activity in the Middle East.

Described as sort of a “Shark Tank” for the military, the competition is looking for ideas both high-tech and low-tech, from personal apps to battle-ready technology to procedures to smooth out human relations. The winner will get a service medal and four-day leave pass, and their idea will be considered for implementation across CENTCOM.

“In the U.S. military, we sometimes think of innovation as this function that we sprinkle on top of our plans once they’re developed, or this function that comes in as we’re developing a new idea,” said CENTCOM spokesperson Joe Buccino, the competition’s executive director. “Well, that’s not going to work. Innovation has to be part of who we are, and has to be in the air we breathe, in everything we do, across everything we do. It has to penetrate all of CENTCOM.”

Buccino has been part of competitions like this in other parts of the military. The 18th Airborne Corps, based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, has held several iterations of a similar competition called Dragon’s Lair, which has spawned ideas like a military app designed to track benefits and support for relocated military family members, and an improved investigation and justice policy for handling sexual sexual assault cases.

“It’s intentionally ambiguous,” Buccino said. “We’re looking for a diversity of ideas — policy-based, high-tech, low-tech. We don’t know what we don’t know.”

That’s where tech giants Google and SpaceX will come in. They, along with NASA officials and military leaders, will judge the ideas, and “bring a name brand and a credibility to the program,” Buccino said. And if a good idea will require a lot more research and work than it seems on its face, those companies will know it.

“Their role is looking at the idea and looking at the innovation from the purview of a company that exists to implement new ideas, and that is constantly working in this field,” he said. “What they’ve agreed to do is basically judge the competition, provide immediate feedback, help us select a winner, and help us identify problems that we’re not seeing that are going to arise down the road.”

Shortly after the competition launched Thursday, CENTCOM had already received a few dozen ideas, ranging from a printer designed for use onboard F-18s to an app that streamlines the passport process for employees traveling around the globe.

Military members and civilian employees can email their ideas to [email protected] by Sept. 16. Judges will name five finalists on Sept. 26; those finalists will present their ideas to the judges in a “Shark Tank”-like event at MacDill Air Force Base on Oct. 12. A winner will be selected Oct. 14.


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