By Jamie L. Leonheart, Capt, USAF, Director & Design Lead, North Spark Defense Laboratory
It all started with a pile of sticky notes and a dream.
“Oh, those are my ideas to change things around here.” Master Sergeant Jesse Gentile explained. “I’ve been trying to get leadership to buy into them, but none seem to want to take the risk.”
“Let’s get them done, then.” Lieutenant Daniel Leonheart replied. With that, a friendship and North Spark began.
From Billy Mitchell, who fought to establish the asymmetric advantage of airpower within the U.S. Army, to Medal of Honor winner Jimmy Doolittle who pioneered instrument flight in World War II, the U.S. Air Force has been formed by rebels, rule breakers, and innovators—the kind of people who are not content to keep the status quo. It’s in the nature, the DNA, of every member of the Air and Space Forces, to always get better and never settle for good enough.
The Chief of Staff of the Air Force is the highest-ranking uniform-wearing member of the Air Force. This office is currently filled by General C.Q. Brown. Gen. Brown has four action orders: A, B, C, and D. Action order B is focused on eliminating bureaucracy. As a Spark Cell, North Spark joined a network of similarly minded Airmen at bases around the world to disrupt the bureaucracy to solve local problems at the local level with innovative solutions.
In short order, Jesse and Dan established a Maker Space with 3D printers, virtual reality (VR) modeling, whiteboards, and drawing and drafting materials. Soon after, their tenacity brought about the establishment of the Zero Ground eSports Center, which was designed to attract and retain talented Airmen and civilians, increase connectedness, and strengthen resiliency at Grand Forks Air Force Base (AFB).
North Spark quickly outgrew the framework of the Spark Cell, and in August 2021, the Air Force Research Laboratory granted Defense Innovation Laboratory status. Thus, North Spark Defense Laboratory was born. As the second Defense Innovation Laboratory in the Air Force, North Spark is authorized to enter into Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) with commercial industry, and Educational Partnership Agreements (EPA) with academic institutions. With more responsibility comes the need for more space, and in April 2022, North Spark held a grand opening at its new laboratory that transformed the old base golf course clubhouse into a sleek, modern, collaborative workspace.