Connect to Lead: Innovation in the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Charissa Menken
  • 136th Airlift Wing

Technology is shaping the modern civilian world in sweeps. But as innovation evolves, so does the Air Force Warfighters' mission. The Air Force has taken steps to encourage Airmen, education outlets, and new technology companies to be catalysts for change by partnering with AFWERX. AFWERX was established in 2017 by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson -- the organization was created as the transition between contemporary ideas and real solutions.

Texas Air National Guardsman Capt. Jennifer Marrs, 136th Airlift Wing Force Support Squadron Personnel Officer and Chief of Innovation, also works at AFWERX as their Product Manager and Director of Community Outreach. Marrs explains what innovation means for Airmen locally. 

“When you ask the average Airman, they probably have no idea that AFWERX even exists,” said Marrs. “Most people understand innovation as a buzzword, but they don’t necessarily know how they are empowered to actually solve problems, which I think is a really incredible opportunity.”

Marrs’ job with AFWERX specifically works with what they call ecosystem development. The ecosystem is made to connect Airmen who have problem-sets or innovative ideas, to academia outlets and the growing technology start-up scene.

“Innovation is something I’m really passionate about because we always say we are trying to get emergent technology in the hands of our warfighters,” said Marrs. “My brother is a special operations pilot, so it’s near and dear to my heart that my brother, and Airmen like him, have the latest and greatest technology.”

 “Airmen and NCOs are really shaping what innovation looks like,” Marrs asserts. “It’s like they’re steering the ship, but our leaders are giving us the latitude to try and do things we’ve never done before.”

AFWERX has multiple products, like Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR), crowd sourcing, Spark Tank, and technology accelerators available to Airmen, entrepreneurs, and cutting edge companies. However, all good ideas start somewhere - for the 136th Airlift Wing, it’s the new Innovation Room.

The “Inno Room” is where Spark Cell meetings take place and where Lt. Col. Mathew Joseph, 136th Civil Engineer Squadron commander, assists Marrs with discussions for the Airmen to become creators and innovators who can share their ideas.

Joseph considers how the civil engineering classroom renovation reflects the support and trust of our senior leaders to spearhead the innovation movement.

“We’re leading the way in innovation, and I would say it even goes beyond the 136th,” said Joseph. “It’s also the Texas Military Department and our Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris who are doing a great job by truly grabbing innovation by the horns and running with it.”

One of the first partnerships created for the 136 AW, made available through SBIR, is with ICON, a company that develops equipment such as 3-D printers, robotics, and advanced materials with the goal of revolutionizing home building.

“It’s the first step,” said Joseph. “Just because we need to be standardized, we’ve been running on more of an antiquated system because it’s something that everyone knows. But if we can crack the code with getting emergent technology like ICON to work with us, we can catch up to where industry is. This will make ourselves more efficient with better use of our manpower and money.”

Joseph elaborates on the benefits of being a part of the innovation team.

“I think the best part of the innovation movement is we’re always told to ‘think outside the box,’” stated Joseph. “Since we’re in a standardized military organization, it lends itself to pushing you back into the box. So given the ability to work with these SBIR programs and AFWERX, we not only have the opportunity to think, but we get to play outside the box.”