2023 Emerging Leaders

Mark V. Ingram

Developed and launched the main innovation arm of the U.S. Air Force, improving pilot safety, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and strengthening our national defense.

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force had been hitting roadblock after roadblock in its effort to develop new, advanced fighter helmets to provide pilots with a safer in-flight experience and prevent long-term neck and back injuries.  

Today, that logjam, among others, is finally being broken thanks to AFWERX, the central innovation arm of the U.S. Air Force developed and launched by Mark Ingram, 33, a senior strategic advisor at the Air Force Research Laboratory. 

Guided by Ingram’s tenacity, vision and leadership, AFWERX is a pioneer in bringing cutting-edge ideas and technology into the U.S. military—from new helmets and flight suits to safer aerial refueler jets and remotely piloted electric aircraft—that are saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, revolutionizing pilot safety and strengthening our national defense.  

“AFWERX lowers the barriers to innovation and makes it easier to partner with the Air Force,” said Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Lab. “Mark has taken the lead in getting great ideas into the field.”  

A new helmet for the Air Force 

Tasked with connecting the Air Force with companies and startups in the military technology space, Ingram designed AFWERX in early 2017, conducting market research and mapping out a detailed strategy that would address the agency’s innovation gaps and align multiple independent efforts across the department.  

His pitch to senior leaders was successful: They signed off on AFWERX in just five months, and its first storefront—a physical hub that connects the Air Force with private companies—launched in just three, roughly one year ahead of schedule.  

“Mark was the driving force in making AFWERX a successful organization. He had a vision, and he drove it home,” said Christopher Ristich, director of the Integrated Capabilities Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory.  

Developing a new helmet was the office’s first priority. The previous maker held a monopoly in the industry and had not upgraded the helmet’s initial features beyond its 1981 design.  

According to Mark Rowland, who led AFWERX’s innovation outpost in Las Vegas, Ingram “changed every step of the development process” to break the monopoly, soliciting more than 100 submissions from around the world, many from nontraditional and innovative startups, and selecting eight companies to develop a new prototype.  

The new model—which is currently being tested and could be used in fighter aircraft as early as next year—is more ergonomically correct, includes better temperature control and noise-cancelling capabilities, and supports advanced helmet-mounted technology.  

“Mark figured out a path for getting the world’s best companies to collaborate on a helmet when everyone in the Air Force said it could never be done,” Rowland said. 

Aerial refueling planes, flying cars and more   

Rowland said that AFWERX has “brought the pace of industry into the Air Force” and become a one-stop shop for companies that want to pitch innovative ideas to government but are unfamiliar with navigating the federal system.  

In 2019, the office developed a new platform aboard aerial refueling planes for instructors who supervise trainees, an innovation that will save the Air Force an estimated $100 million annually in medical costs resulting from neck, back and shoulder injuries.  

Other solutions include a new in-flight bladder relief device designed for women—many of whom were deliberately dehydrating themselves to avoid discomfort during long flights; autonomous aircraft technology, now being tested and developed; and electrically powered flying cars—AFWERX is providing more than $100 million to startups that design the vehicles. In January 2022, AFWERX operated the government’s first remotely piloted flight of one such vehicle. 

More recently, as a chief strategy officer, Ingram helped centralize four different offices under an umbrella called the Integrated Capabilities Directorate to develop and field new capabilities and ensure the Air Force remains at the forefront of innovation in government.  

“We deliver better solutions that are more responsive to our customers, and we are stewards of taxpayer money while accomplishing our mission,” Ingram said.