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Connect to Lead: Innovation in the Air Force

Texas Air National Guard member uses a cricut machine in the 136th Airlift Wing's new Innovation Room.

Tech. Sgt. Aubrey Ramos, 136th Airlift Wing Financial Management specialist, experiments with the Innovation Room's new cricut machine after the Innovation Brown Bag Luncheon October 20, 2019, at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas. Ramos is on the Innovation team and has supported the development and purchases made to open the new Innovation Room that occurred on January 25, 2020. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by A1C Charissa Menken)

Logo of Capital Factory on window in Austin, Texas.

Capitol Factory, AFWERX facilities host company, windows showcase the cityscape of Austin, Texas, on the fifth floor of their building September 5, 2019. AFWERX members and affiliate companies have access to these designated floors with memberships through Capitol Factory. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by A1C Charissa Menken)

Two Texas Air National Guard members discuss innovative ideas and ongoing projects in the Innovation Room.

(left to right) Texas Air National Guardsmen Maj. Mathew Joseph, 136th Civil Engineering Squadron commander, and Airman 1st Class Kenneth Velez, 136th Airlift Wing Enlisted Advisory Council president, participate in an Innovation Brown Bag luncheon discussing current innovative ideas and recent updates over ongoing projects October 20, 2019, at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, Texas. Joseph helps target what innovative ideas are already in the works and what can be accomplished at the wing level. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by A1C Charissa Menken)

NAVAL AIR STATION JOINT RESERVE BASE FORT WORTH, Texas --

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.”