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AFIMSC innovation ecosystem moves projects through ‘valley of death’

  • Published
  • By Shannon Carabajal
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

In the early stages of innovation, a lack of funding and support often hinders or stops progress. This stage is referred to as the “valley of death.”

“Many ideas and advancements never make it out of the valley of death,” said Pitman Kennedy, innovation project manager with Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center Ventures. “It’s hard to get momentum, support and funding, but that’s where we come in.”

At AFIMSC, a network of project managers and subject matter experts are breaking down barriers and helping innovators test and implement ideas with potential to make work and life better for Airmen, Guardians and families.

“We’ve created a team of teams to support innovation concepts. And not just grassroots concepts, AFIMSC is driving change from the strategic level,” Kennedy said.

Along with the right government and industry partners, that team includes Airmen from spark cells at each AFIMSC primary subordinate unit – Air Force Civil Engineer Center, Air Force Installation Contracting Center, Air Force Security Forces Center and Air Force Services Center – who are committed to accelerating change across their functional areas and scaling great ideas across the enterprise.

“Innovation is important because things change, that’s the one thing that’s inevitable. And the warfighting effort has changed drastically,” said Teresa Warman, a member of the AFSVC Spark.

“If we don’t continue to innovate, we’re going to be left behind.”

Projects are funneled to the PSU sparks cells through several paths. They can be routed through annual AFIMSC innovation events such as the Innovation Rodeo or the Installation and Mission Support Weapons and Tactics Conference; identified by functional leaders as capabilities or assets needed in the field; a result of an industry pitch; or ideas directly from Airmen or Guardians at every level.

When an idea worth pursuing comes into AFIMSC, the center’s innovation teams can quickly move it forward because they have connections with the right functional stakeholders and experts, and they understand how to partner with industry and navigate the contracting world and funding options. Since 2018, the center has secured more the $85 million from government and venture capital funding programs for innovation projects.

AFIMSC PSU innovation cells are also fully integrated and working with AFWERX, major commands and units in the field. Those connections are invaluable to helping innovative Airmen and Guardians at every level, said Mark Morgan, a member of AFCEC Civil Engineer Spark.

“Ultimately, we have connections with the right subject matter experts,” he said. “If it’s an innovation that requires an authority making the call on whether we’re going to pursue that innovation, we bridge that gap.”

A helping hand from AFIMSC is especially valuable to Airmen at the installation level looking to scale and expand beyond the needs of one specific installation, said Craig Rednour of the 375th Civil Engineer Squadron at Scott AFB, Illinois. Rednour’s idea, Autonomous Airfield Operations, earned first place at the 2022 AFIMSC Innovation Rodeo and is moving forward with help from the AFCEC CE Spark.

“Without their assistance, we would not have been able to continue developing this product at as large or rapid of scale," he said.

Over the past few years, AFCEC’s CE Spark has leveraged connections and partnerships to help field many projects for the CE enterprise including Agility for Firefighters, a lighter, leaner all-electric tool kit for firefighters’ emergency responses; NexGenIT, the software system used to receive and execute CE work across the Air Force; CBRN Emulators, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear training tools for the purposes of preserving real-world detection tools.

Currently, the team has more than 40 CE projects in development, including a water purification technology capable of producing 1,500 gallons of water per day with minimal power requirements and a project investigating the practicality of using advanced 3D printing technology for conventional military and expeditionary construction.

“Major impacts are few and far in-between, but whenever we do get those wins, they’re pretty grand,” Morgan said. 

At the AFSFC, the Defender Spark is pursuing innovations for training, equipping and managing Air Force Security Forces. The team currently has over 180 projects in the “pipeline,” said Jason McLendon, AFSFC Concepts and Innovation Branch chief, including a virtual reality training initiative, a next generation humanoid robotic small arms training system and a project to deliver wireless electrical power on demand.

One of the team’s current primary focus areas is agile combat employment, an operational concept designed to enable forces to understand, secure, communicate and act across the battlespace using the most effective lean package possible to increase survivability and lethality, he said. ACE shifts operations from centralized physical infrastructures to a network of smaller, dispersed locations or cluster bases.

“The Defender Spark team is committed to accelerating change across the entire Air Force Security Forces enterprise,” McLendon said. “One of the biggest challenges is the ability to innovate at the speed of relevance, but we make progress every day.”

Overall, AFIMSC innovation teams have more than 220 total projects in various stages of development, but they’re always ready to help even more Airmen and Guardians accelerate change, Kennedy said.

“Reach out to AFIMSC,” he said. “We will do everything we can to help. If it’s not aligned to our functional lane, we will connect you to the right organization.”

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