Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in November as part of a nationwide DoD facilities tour. The research lab and the Wright Brothers Institute are considering opening a downtown Dayton office as part of its strategy to open “the fence” to businesses in region and spearhead a hub for innovative ideas. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Ty Greenlees
Photo: Ty Greenlees

‘Innovation district’ considered for downtown

AFRL, Wright Brothers Institute want an open fence to Dayton area business.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and its allies in the region are changing the way they do business and opening “the fence” to Dayton-area business in new ways, AFRL civilian employees said Friday.

The effort may feature a new office in downtown Dayton.

AFRL, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — Ohio’s largest single-site employer — wants Dayton businesses involved and close by, AFRL employees told members of the I-70/75 Development Association.

“AFRL is evolving the way we do business,” said Ryan Helbach, who introduced himself to his Sinclair Community College audience as the AFRL “chief intrapreneur.”

The outreach to local businesses may soon include a new downtown Dayton home for the Wright Brothers Institute, an organization that often serves as a bridge between the Air Force and civilian thinkers and doers who help the branch solve problems.

“This is really an opportunity to experiment and it’s an experiment with embedding Wright Brothers Institute and the Air Force Research Laboratory through a partnership in downtown’s emerging entrepreneurial and start-up culture,” Lester McFawn, Wright Brothers Institute executive director, said in an interview. “It’s also an opportunity to experiment with attracting and retaining the next generation workforce that are very much keyed to new ways of working. I’ll call it the work, live, play environment that you see in downtown Dayton.”

A building at 444 E. Second St., once used in a larger way by the University of Dayton Research Institute, is being considered.

“There’s nothing definitive yet,” Helbach said about naming a proposed downtown location.

McFawn said the office is targeted to open this summer.

Talk of opening a downtown presence is growing.

In a LinkedIn essay this week, Jennie Hempstead, graphics innovation lead at the Wright Brothers Institute, said her organization is researching ways to work downtown.

“One proposed solution positions AFRL as the anchor of an innovation district,” Hempstead wrote. “Innovation districts are defined as ‘geographic areas’ where anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups, business incubators and accelerators.”

With a $4 billion annual budget, AFRL and its more than 5,700 Ohio employees spend more than $200 million in Ohio, with most of that going to the Dayton region, Helbach said.

Some $12.5 million of that goes to Ohio academia, with about $229 million aimed at small businesses and another $230 million going to industry in the state, according to numbers Helbach presented.

“The Air Force doesn’t produce its own products,” said Emily Fehrman Cory, director of the AFRL Maker Hub. “We rely on manufacturing to do that.”

Helbach encouraged listeners to get their businesses and organizations identified on the website, DaytonTechGuide.com, an Internet haven for local small tech start-ups.

“That’s really going to be the front door for anyone looking to engage with the (Dayton small business) ecosystem,” Helbach said.

Mitch Heaton, vice president of economic development for the Dayton Development Coalition, encouraged the audience to spread the word about AFRL efforts, saying everyone in the room had a development role.

“We’re the connectors,” Heaton said.

Staff writer Barrie Barber contributed to this story.

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