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​The 2019 AFWERX "Fusion Xperience" conference in Las Vegas brings together more than 100 small businesses and other companies that are pitching technologies related to multi-domain operations, one of the Air Force's top research priorities. Defense Department photo via Twitter.

LAS VEGAS—The Air Force wants all the help it can get to tackle a wicked problem like multidomain operations. Enter: AFWERX.

AFWERX—a multifaceted Air Force group broadening the service’s outreach to small businesses, helping grow startups, and touting fast prototyping over traditional acquisition—is trying to level the playing field so more companies can contribute to the future multi-domain enterprise.

The organization’s “Fusion Xperience” conference a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip brings together around 120 companies that responded to the Air Force’s call for tools that enable “rapid decision making and coordinated response across multiple domains.” Startups stand shoulder-to-shoulder with major defense contractors; venture capitalists can scope out potential investment opportunities.

Participants hawking their artificial intelligence, data analytics, and other products were chosen from a pool of more than 300 submissions to an MDO Challenge earlier this year. Judges from across the Air Force will pick up to 30 companies to pitch their ideas again in September. That could entail simply presenting for about an hour about the product, or it could require companies to use Air Force data to demonstrate their capabilities, according to AFWERX Chief Executive Officer Brian Maue.

Maue believes the multi-domain ideas underway here can fit into the Air Force’s push for an Advanced Battle Management System, an effort that was launched when the service decided to cancel its plan to replace the E-8C Joint STARS. ABMS envisions a network of land, air, and space assets that can collect data on battlefield happenings to direct combat platforms accordingly. It is increasingly seen as hand-in-hand with multi-domain operations, which are envisioned as a faster, more connected way of waging war.

The Las Vegas event is as much about relationship building as it is about technology development, bringing the military together with parts of industry that don’t normally interact with the Defense Department.

“If a company has a bad experience, they’ll tell their friends, they’ll tell their portfolio investors, they’ll tell the other companies that they know of, ‘Hey, don’t work with the Air Force,” Capt. Steve Lauver, AFWERX’s technology accelerator director, said. “That is a cycle that I’m very proud to say has reversed within one year.”

Multi-domain operations will rely on a greater level of trust between people in uniform as well, Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability Director Maj. Gen. Michael Fantini said.

This year’s conference drew about twice the number of companies that came to the 2018 Fusion Xperience, centered on base security. It’s also the first time Air Force major commands are scoping out possible projects, and AFWERX has started talking with groups like Army Futures Command and Naval Air Systems Command about how to adopt its small business-, prototyping-focused mindset, and hopes to expand its joint ventures in the future.

“We’re very conscious about wanting to make this a joint integrated effort over the years, but we’re still a little too young,” Maue said. “We’re sharing best practices with Navy, and Navy is responding that they find it value-adding, and we’re going to try and continue to build.”

Fusion events are AFWERX’s largest annual conference that centers on a particular problem the Air Force wants to solve. The MDO conference brings together vendors that already hold Air Force contracts, those who participated in a recent MDO-focused challenge spearheaded by Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson, and those who competed in a separate challenge from April to June.

Maue said the organization hasn’t yet decided which large-scale issue it will tackle at next year’s gathering.