By Airman 1st Class Charissa Menken, 136th Airlift Wing, Texas Air National Guard
FORT WORTH, Texas – Technology is shaping the modern civilian world. But as innovation evolves, so does the mission of Air Force warfighters.
The Air Force has taken steps to encourage Airmen, education outlets, and new technology companies to be catalysts for change by partnering with AFWERX. The organization was established in 2017 by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson to serve as the transition between contemporary ideas and real solutions.
"When you ask the average Airman, they probably have no idea that AFWERX even exists," said Capt. Jennifer Marrs, 136th Airlift Wing Force support services officer and chief of innovation at the 136 AW, Texas Air National Guard. She also is product manager and director of community outreach at AFWERX.
"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."
At AFWERX, Marrs works to connect Airmen who have problems or innovative ideas to academic outlets and technology start-ups.
"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," she said. "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, including small business innovative research (SBIR), crowdsourcing and technology accelerators, available to Airmen, entrepreneurs and cutting edge companies.
All good ideas start somewhere. For the 136th Airlift Wing, that place is the Innovation Room or "Inno Room," where Maj. Mathew Joseph, 136th Civil Engineer Squadron commander, and Marrs facilitate discussion with Airmen.
"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."
One of the first partnerships created for the 136 AW, through SBIR, is with ICON, a company that creates printers, robotics and advanced materials for homebuilding.
"Just because we need to be standardized, we've been running on more of an antiquated system because it's something that everyone knows," Joseph said. "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" and use resources more efficiently.
Joseph touted the benefits of being part of the innovation team.
"Since we're in a standardized military organization, it lends itself to pushing you back into the box," he said. "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."