Open Innovation @NASA

October 8, 2010  

I am speaking at TRIZCON tomorrow. The opening speaker today was Jeffrey Davis, MD, Director of Space Life Sciences at NASA Johnson Space Center. His excellent presentation focused primarily on the open innovation efforts of NASA.

Here are some of the key soundbites I heard…

  • They wanted to avoid the “serendipity” associated with many innovation efforts, and to create something more predictable.
  • Alliances are THE key to open innovation. Another one is to use the platforms as a way of “managing a network of networks.”
  • He quoted Karim Lakhani from Harvard who once said, “No matter who you are, the smartest people work for someone else.”
  • He said that “putting a call for solutions to the open innovation channels was easy.” But there was a psychological barrier to admitting they couldn’t find the answers themselves.
  • Part of the reason why their efforts were so successful is that they did their homework. They determined which open innovation venue was most appropriate for each challenge. He referred to an article written by Gary Pisano in HBR (you can read an excerpt here).
  • NASA is using three organizations for their open innovation efforts: InnoCentive, Yet2, and Topcoder.

InnoCentive Challenges

Davis spent a large part of his hour talking about InnoCentive. He described them as a “turnkey solution” because challenge writing, vetting and other activities are done by them, reducing the amount of work to be done by NASA. Their InnoCentive challenges yielded responses from people in 65 countries and had a solve rate of about 50%.  He described a few InnoCentive challenges that they ran. Here are three where he had some interesting commentary:

Solar activity cause problems for space travel. If an astronaut is doing a walk during a flare, it can be incredibly dangerous. Therefore they ran a challenge to predict such activity. But instead of posting it as a solar activity challenge, they posed it as a mathematical modeling issue. This broadened the possible sphere of solutions and solution providers. The success criteria for the solution was that the model would need to provide prediction within 24 hours of the solar activity, it needed to be 50% accurate, and within 2 sigma (a quality measure where the higher the number the better). The solution was provided by a retired engineer whose model predicted within 8 hours, was 70% accurate and within 3 sigma. This was a huge improvement over their initial expectations.

Because space travel can last for years, they have a problem with food spoilage. Therefore they ran a challenge to find a food packaging materials that could keep food fresh for 3 years. They found a solution from someone without food experience in Russia who developed a graphite-based material that appears to keep food fresher than regular materials.

Davis indicated that their “micro gravity laundry system” challenge was the least successful. There were two lessons from this. 1) Asking a “system” question was too complex and it should have been deconstructed into smaller challenges (e.g., a valve challenge). 2) Maybe a “higher level” question should be asked. For example, how do we eliminate the need for clothes laundering altogether?

His comments confirmed a few things for me:

  • The laundry challenge highlights two keep points: asking a question that is too abstract leads to fluffy solutions, and asking the wrong question leads to irrelevant solutions.
  • The food packaging and solar flare challenges show that solutions often come from disciplines than are different than where you would traditionally look.
  • There is no one size fits all solution for open innovation. Different challenges require different approaches.

If you want to see my presentation to NASA last year, you can watch it here.

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One Response to “Open Innovation @NASA”

  1. Erin Schumpert on October 8th, 2010 3:12 pm

    I enjoyed your post, Stephen. It’s very exciting to gain insight into the innovation process that NASA is taking on. A company or agency’s culture should be a key consideration when evaluating the best way to approach implementing an innovation process. I can understand Dr. Davis’ statement that “there was a psychological barrier to admitting they couldn’t find the answers themselves”. NASA, distinguished for its league of brilliant and influential minds, has spent years as the leader in space exploration. I would imagine that wide adoption for an internal innovation solution would be tough sell. However, in a time when the economy is still struggling and budgets are being cut left and right, innovation is a “must have”, not a “nice to have”. It is important to understand the positive impact that collaboration and transparency can have on a community such as NASA. Many government agencies and contractors as well as F500 companies, have dealt with long-standing cultures of closed-door policies; creating significant hurdles for innovation. Being open is difficult but social technologies and social media are the future- openness needs to be embraced. Finding the right tool to effectively engage individuals in a collaborative environment is key. Spigit has helped many government agencies create successful innovation management communities. Spigit’s effective idea management software is powered by a mixture of intelligent algorithms and automatic idea filtering. These capabilities, combined with feedback from the user community, allow companies to find relevant, actionable ideas. I would love to provide more information on Spigit’s solutions. In the mean time, please feel free to check us out at