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PSCR Staff Spotlight: Prize Competition and Challenge Specialist Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes headshot

Sarah Hughes is a Prize Competition and Challenge Specialist with the Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division's Open Innovation team. In this role, she manages internal and external R&D, communications, legal, administrative, and procurement resources to design and implement prize competitions and challenges to advance PSCR's mission. Additionally, she is working on PSCR’s commercialization efforts through the Pulse Business Accelerator.

PSCR’s communications team interviewed Ms. Hughes to learn more about her passion for entrepreneurship and economic development, and her experience managing prize challenges.

Can you describe your current role? 

SH: I’m on the Open Innovation team which runs PSCR’s prize challenges. We work with our technical researchers and staff to identify a problem area or a target technology area they want to explore a little bit more, and PSCR’s prize challenges recruit outside innovators to help us think through how we could advance communications technology for first responders. 

I’ve also recently been working on PSCR’s commercialization plan, thinking through the ideas and funding opportunities that can help early stage innovators advance new technology and get it into the hands of first responders. It’s been a really neat two-fold of still getting to run new prize challenges and wrap a longer prize challenge up, while also thinking through different grant funding opportunities, business accelerators, or other projects that can help us figure out how to advance the needle.

How did you get into your current role? Can you describe what compelled you to get involved in this type of work?

SH: I previously worked at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) where I was focused first at the headquarters level on entrepreneurial development programs, for instance what kind of programs could take new innovators and support them to be sustainable, growth-oriented small businesses. And then I transitioned to focus just in the state of Colorado. When I moved to Colorado, I was learning about the different entrepreneurial development programs, ecosystem programs, and who was involved in the state and city levels that supported small businesses. And I helped them connect to the SBA and other federal government resource programs.

I really loved that, but I missed running individual programs myself. I’d worked on prize challenges a bit during my time at SBA and also during a fellowship I had where I spent six months at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in their global development lab. So when I saw the job opportunity at PSCR, I applied, met the team, and then was really excited about this unique opportunity to do a lot of work in a short amount of time. Sometimes those constraints, like time, can really allow for creative new pilots, which we’ve been able to run and see the impacts of. And knowing that both PSCR Division Chief Dereck Orr and Deputy Division Chief Ellen Ryan were energized by what new ideas and programs PSCR can offer to make the most impact possible during our time frame, with certain funds allowed, made it a really good fit. I’m getting to do what I want to do, but I also have the right team to support me who are excited to keep energizing the staff to do more for the mission.

Can you describe your time in the Presidential Fellowship Program? What impact did it have on your career aspirations?

SH: When I started my career, I was focused on nonprofit organizations and worked at small, local nonprofits where I’m from in Indianapolis. I wanted to go to school to become a manager or executive director of a nonprofit. But while at school I became interested in economic development and international development, and the different roles nonprofits and government play in helping a community thrive or grow.

When I got the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), it changed my focus from nonprofits to government. I was interested in how you can thoughtfully approach the role of the federal government, and make sure that the public can access officials and is involved in government programs. So that’s been a neat part of working at PSCR, where my whole role is shaping how we connect our innovators to our researchers and our first responders. When all three of them interact together for a prize challenge or one of our commercialization programs, I’ve seen some really great long standing relationships start or new prototypes form. That’s really been the excitement of transitioning from the PMF to federal employment.

Is that what you’d say you like most about your current job?

SH: Yes, I love the relationship building - when we can connect the innovators with first responders and our PSCR researchers. When those three intersect, I think that’s when really powerful examples of how we’re propelling communication technology and our mission come together.

What do you find challenging about your role?

SH: It’s not necessarily a negative aspect all the time, but the federal government is purposefully designed not to do things quickly. There are safeguards and protections for a reason. And so in my seven or so years in the federal government, with three different agencies, I’ve seen the nuances -- both when to build relationships and make connections within your agency to get something accomplished, and when a roadblock was created purposefully to protect public funds and public interest. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize those differences.

How does your work, and the prize challenges you manage, impact the public safety community and the future of public safety communications?

SH: I have two different examples of this. The first is the Haptics Interface Prize Challenge I worked on a few years back. At the final event, we hosted innovators at a training center with one of the challenge partners, the West Metro Fire District. To get to see the innovators talk to the firefighters, and see the firefighters use their prototypes, was really fulfilling because the innovators could recognize a design flaw in real time with a better understanding of the firefighters' day-to-day action. They also had young cadets going through training to become firefighters who were excited to see innovators working on this technology. They recognize the discrepancies between the technology they use in their personal life versus their professional life and the revolution that needs to happen. There are a lot of obstacles and challenges in the environments they work in, and reasons why the technology has been delayed, but I think connecting the innovators, researchers, and first responders shows the impact of why PSCR exists.

The other example is the Pulse Business Accelerator that I’ve been working on. Each participant has to have customer discovery conversations with first responders, communication technology experts, or other individuals to help them hone in on how their technology would work in the public safety market. One of our first responder partners from another prize challenge engaged with the individuals in the business accelerator and had a really great conversation that led to a three-day ride along. The first responder was energized and excited that innovators and PSCR are working to help their future staff have access to technology. And then the innovator was obviously thrilled with that opportunity to better understand the user experience of their technology. Those moments are extremely fulfilling.

Who or what has been inspirational or influential in your career?

SH: Throughout my career I’ve really lucked out with great supervisors, especially in the federal government. From my first supervisor who taught me the day-to-day, how to interact with others, things to work on, and how the branches of government work together; and all the way to my current supervisor Ellen and her ability to put out fires for her staff. She views her job as clearing paths and getting rid of obstacles so her staff can thrive. I think those are really powerful lessons of what a supervisor can do. For me it’s been all about that personal, nuanced nature that comes with being a federal employee. Even though you’re working in a large bureaucracy, the little personal touches still make a huge difference. The impact you can have on a project and the public only works if you’re working well as a whole team and a whole chain of different people understanding their role.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of in your career?

SH: Entrepreneurship has been the common thread in my career. In each of the projects I’ve worked on, there have been entrepreneurs that are still succeeding or have pivoted and are flourishing now. Some are still working in their original market or have advanced their prototype to full-on technology. I think knowing that at least one innovator or entrepreneur per program that I’ve worked on is still at it and still happy, and was able to access resources that the U.S. government provides, is really fulfilling. Those have definitely been the happiest moments that I’ve had.

Tell us about your work on PSCR’s Economic Impact Analysis. What is your involvement in this work and why is it so important both to PSCR and to you personally?

SH: Personally, I learned about these studies and even conducted some as part of my professional graduate program, so I knew what they could do. Sometimes it’s difficult to share a collective impact that the federal government or a federal program has. We can share stories of first responders, or the impact of individual researchers, to show how important PSCR is to someone that is not intimately involved. But something like an economic impact story can really help share that our impact is not just the technology or widgets created, or the relationships we build, but it’s also the economic benefits from our work that can be seen in every state or community.

While the main point of our research and development (R&D) funding is to advance communication technology for first responders, there’s actually a really important secondary impact of creating new jobs, revenue, output, and adding values to individual communities. So while we’re waiting to see the impact from all of the R&D funding and prototypes for first responders, we can use the economic impact report to share the secondary story of the impact we’re having in communities across the country.

What do you want industry, government officials, and small businesses to know about PSCR's impact? How can they benefit from the PSCR program and how should they get involved?

SH: I think so many of the individuals that have gotten into the PSCR mission and wanted to get involved were surprised at how easy it was. Either how easy it was for us to connect them to public safety; or if they’re a first responder that wants to give back, how easy it was for them to answer a phone call from an innovator from the Pulse Business Accelerator.

If you want to get involved, reach out to PSCR. Communicate your level of interest and availability. We have so many opportunities to connect individuals via different prize challenges or grant funding opportunities that come up all the time, or internal research that we always need more first responders’ opinions on to help validate. There are a variety of ways to get involved, we just need to see the hand raised and we’ll take it from there.

Released September 13, 2021, Updated September 24, 2021