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In Ybor City, U.S. special ops go off base and on offensive to find best of best ideas

James “Hondo” Geurts, the acquisition executive for U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, wants ideas the elite commando operation may not have thought of. 
James “Hondo” Geurts, the acquisition executive for U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, wants ideas the elite commando operation may not have thought of. 
Published Feb. 27, 2016

YBOR CITY

As the U.S. Special Operations Command guy in charge of equipping the nation's special ops forces with the best possible — best imagined — tools to do their dangerous jobs, James "Hondo" Geurts was not satisfied.

Behind the walls and military bureaucracy of MacDill Air Force Base, the home of SOCom, Geurts worried he was missing out on some of the best entrepreneurial ideas for helping soldiers in the field.

So Geurts, 50 and approaching 30 years in the Air Force, did what the military does best. Take the offensive, armed with a mandate backed by a budget running well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

He is the driving force behind the creation of an idea lab dubbed SOFWERX that has quietly landed in space in one of Ybor City's oldest buildings. Its mission: to solicit entrepreneurs, academics and inventive people to pitch ideas that might translate into next-generation equipment for special forces in the field. If some of these ideas become products that can be commercialized — all the better for the area's entrepreneurial ecosystem.

"What keeps me up at night?" Geurts posed the question during a one-on-one interview Thursday evening at SOFWERX. "An idea that can't get to me because somebody can't get on the (MacDill) base or past the bureaucracy."

There is some urgency here. In the same week that Geurts and I were talking, news reports said special operations teams were helping local forces surround the Islamic State-controlled town of Shaddadeh in Syria. In Honduras, a special ops team was monitoring SWAT officers fighting street crime and drug trafficking, using a satellite view of the slum and scanned photos from a circling police helicopter. The team reads WhatsApp text messages between the SWAT commander and his men.

Geurts wants ideas, lots of them, to pour into SOFWERX. Those with strong potential can be tested quickly using 3D printers. The image is one of firing creative or out-of-the-box notions at SOFWERX and seeing which ones survive and prosper.

Geurts calls it getting a "return on collision."

That's where the not-for-profit Thunderdome Project steps in. It's essentially an idea exchange and business accelerator that will attract a high volume of innovators with ideas and, with SOF­WERX input, help bring the best ideas to fruition quickly. Or as its website (thunderdome.io) says: "produce 10x the innovations in 1/10 the time."

"Our mission is to leverage entrepreneurial talent," said Thunderdome Project chief operating officer Kirk Burton, "and make what Mr. Geurts calls collisions."

Thunderdome is the work of ex-military co-founders Burton and CEO Mark Swanson. Swanson is well known in Tampa Bay startup circles, having started multiple companies and recently selling one to Bright House Networks.

Its first "open mic" gathering, dubbed Thunderdome Thursday, took place at SOFWERX in Ybor. About 40 entrepreneurs, business executives, venture fund folks and people with startup ideas, came to listen to or give eight-minute pitches on ideas that just might catch SOCom's eye or, perhaps, someone in the private sector who liked what they heard.

Among those pitching: Anthony Diaz, founder of the health and wellness system called Health Hero and a graduate of the Tampa Healthbox accelerator a few years ago.

One attendee, David Pizzo, is regional CEO of Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield and a longtime leader in Tampa Bay economic development groups. His firm also helps support medical startups, and he was there hunting for commercial opportunities with new medical industry ideas. Like what? "Wearable medical devices," he said.

Another muscular pitch was made by entrepreneur Michael Ferris of the startup OccamMD, based inside the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in downtown Tampa. His firm helps in the design and testing of intelligent (Internet connected) devices, especially in the medical field.

Sitting in the Thunderdome Thursday audience were several SOCom experts assessing the possibilities of what they heard.

So what exactly does SOCom want?

Geurts says SOCom wants lot of things. Many of its mainstream needs can be found in military request for proposals, or days when the defense industry showcases products, or in consultant reports.

But the real purpose of SOFWERX is to encounter ideas that special operations forces may have never thought of.

"This is another tool in the tool kit," Geurts said. "If someone came up with a teleporter" — something like a Star Trek transporter — "I would use it."

After listening to Geurts, I'd boil it down to this. He wants to give his soldiers a greater edge.

That could mean better, lighter armor. (SOFWERX is already working on Talos, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit that some call the "Iron Man" suit.)

It could mean wearable technology that might monitor not only the health of soldiers but warn them of environmental dangers. It could mean a next-generation helmet with more sophisticated information and communication screens.

And anything that is faster, lighter and smaller wins big points.

Thunderdome's Burton points out that today's enemies like ISIS can often turn around technology and military advances quicker than the U.S. military. He and Swanson want to change that. Now. The co-founders believe the Thunderdome Project and SOFWERX can make a difference.

Geurts is hardly relying only upon SOFWERX for next-generation ideas. SOCom's reach is long and deep. But Geurts, who has been at SOCom for 10 years, praises Tampa for its solid support of MacDill. He sees a lot of private sector resources in the area that may help his cause — and benefit the Tampa Bay entrepreneurial community along the way.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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