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Shooting for the Stars

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A Look at How NASA is Using Open Innovation to Solve Lofty Challenges

“We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.”1

With Apollo 11, NASA became the first to land humans on the moon in 1969. Today, NASA continues to push boundaries as it works on solving the universe’s biggest challenges. Current challenges include searching for a new large planet (Planet 9) on the outskirts of the solar system and discovering new methods to convert carbon dioxide to useful compounds.2 The challenges NASA works on are very demanding of resources. Unfortunately, the lack of available funding and a shortage of talent makes solving these problems difficult. NASA’s government funding is less than 0.5% of the federal budget (compared to 4.5% during the Apollo 11 program). The shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. has increased the struggle to attract talented employees.3 In order to combat these headwinds and maintain its leadership position, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation has adopted open innovation to further enhance its R&D process.

Open innovation allows NASA to learn about new technologies, crowdsource novel ideas, and tap into high skilled individuals. Deputy Chief Technologist Jim Adams stated, “NASA recognizes that crowdsourcing presents an extraordinary opportunity to inspire the development of transformative solutions by offering a means to engage with non-traditional sources of innovative ideas, all in a remarkably cost-effective way.”4 In addition to cost efficiencies, open innovation has resulted in R&D efficiencies. While traditional R&D approaches require scientists to invest in one potential solution that may fail, open innovation allows NASA to evaluate multiple ideas at once to determine which ideas work in order to arrive at a vetted solution faster.5

To better contextualize the benefits of crowdsourcing, consider the Planet 9 challenge. NASA provided  space enthusiasts and astronomers access to images taken by a telescope and asked them to find anything that seems to move against the motionless background of the distant stars. In only three days, 21,000 volunteers studied more than 100,000 images and identified more than 5 million objects. This amount of work would have taken a single astronomer four years to finish.4

The NASA Tournament Lab is the vehicle through which NASA pursues crowdsourcing. As seen in the below exhibit, NASA uses various open innovation platforms to launch challenges and engage with the public to discover ideas and solutions to accelerate research.  To better organize the opportunities open to the external community, NASA Solve serves as a “one-stop-shop” to showcase crowdsourced challenges, prize competitions, and competitions aimed at furthering student education to harness the public’s innovative ideas.6

With NASA@WORK, NASA created an internal crowdsourcing platform to connect employees within the agency to transfer knowledge and provide new ideas to solve specific challenges. As a first stop along the open innovation process, NASA@WORK allows employees to test challenges within NASA before releasing crowdsourcing challenges to the public. This internal test allows challenge owners to refine their challenge topic and gather additional inputs before launching an external competition to crowdsource novel solutions.7

Open innovation is a two-way street at NASA. NASA’s Startup Initiative gives entrepreneurs access to NASA’s vast patent portfolio with no up-front payment. Start-ups can leverage NASA’s cutting-edge technology to create new products. This is a win-win partnership given NASA collects a royalty fee once a company starts selling a product, and start-ups overcome the hurdles of raising capital and securing intellectual property rights.8

Furthermore, the New Citizen Science projects give the external community the opportunity to participate in research by collecting scientific data. Over the next three years, projects will integrate voluntary public data sourced from the community with scientific methods for understanding the global environment. Through these projects, “NASA uses the vantage point of space to understand our home planet… The agency’s observations of Earth’s complex natural environment are critical to understanding how our planet’s natural resources and climate are changing now and could change in the future.”9

I’d recommend several steps for NASA to better execute on its short and medium-term strategy. First, I’d establish more efficient procedures to validate solid solutions from crowdsourced ideas, and once identified, develop protocol for smooth execution and implementation. Additionally, given the significant cultural shift caused by open innovation, the agency needs to get buy-in from all employees to maximize value. The system will not work if internal scientists are hesitant to implement the crowdsourced solutions and feel threatened by open innovation. NASA needs to incentivize its employees to shift their mindset from problem solver to problem seeker. Finally, as it relates to the talent shortage, I’d recommend that NASA proactively uses the university crowdsourcing competitions to identify talented individuals and recruit them to NASA.

As the external community expands, how can NASA use open innovation efficiently without getting too distracted with ideas? How can NASA avoid running into intellectual property issues with open innovation?

Word Count: 797

Bibliography

  1. Blodgett, Rachael. “Our Missions and Values.” NASA, NASA, 20 Apr. 2018, www.nasa.gov/careers/our-mission-and-values.
  2. Hall, Loura. “Explore Opportunities.” NASA, NASA, 23 Feb. 2018, www.nasa.gov/solve/explore_opportunities.
  3. Gonzalez, Loizos HeracleousDouglas TerrierSteven. “The Reinvention of NASA.” Harvard Business Review, 30 Apr. 2018, hbr.org/2018/04/the-reinvention-of-nasa.
  4. “NASA: Crowdsourcing the Universe.” Consumer Value Creation, 14 Feb. 2018, consumervaluecreation.com/2018/02/12/nasa-crowdsourcing-the-universe/.
  5. Jessica Day. 12 January 2017. “How NASA Is Crowdsourcing Its Innovation Strategy.” IdeaScale, 12 Jan. 2017, ideascale.com/24571/.
  6. Lewis, Robert. “NASA Tournament Lab.” NASA, NASA, 27 Apr. 2015, www.nasa.gov/coeci/ntl.
  7. Lewis, Robert. “NASA@Work.” NASA, NASA, 11 May 2015, www.nasa.gov/coeci/nasa-at-work.
  8. “Tech Transfer for Startups: Cutting Back Licensing Fees.” Mechanical Engineering. Dec2015, Vol. 137 Issue 12, p24-24. 1/2p
  9. Thomas, Kindra. “New Citizen Science Projects Funded for Earth Studies.” NASA, NASA, 16 Apr. 2018, www.nasa.gov/feature/new-citizen-science-projects-funded-for-earth-studies.

 

24 thoughts on “Shooting for the Stars

  1. This piece is so intriguing. I always believed NASA was this super-secret agency and no one knew what was going on behind their closed doors. To think that they have been crowd sourcing suggestions was a revelation.

    You touch upon the change in culture needed at NASA to accommodate new innovative ideas that are coming in. These articles here highlight how this is NASA’s biggest challenge (https://blog.innocentive.com/study-at-nasa-reveals-the-largest-hurdle-to-open-innovation and https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0001839217747876).

    Another nuance to your first question is the fact that outsiders will not be familiar with the way the agency functions and several ideas may involve high budgets, different processes. How does NASA filter through the feasible ideas from amongst the many?

    I find very little downside other than sensitive data that NASA may have but that can be easily ring-fenced. I wonder on one matter though. NASA solely restricts its employees to US citizens (https://answers.nssc.nasa.gov/app/answers/detail/a_id/5748/~/what-types-of-nasa-jobs-are-available-to-foreign-nationals%3F). This may be motivated by the fact that NASA houses national secrets, is fighting a space war and has military applications. By crowd-sourcing, how does it control the audience and who is contributing? Do they have a robust enough mechanism to filter this out?

  2. I am intrigued by the fact that NASA has opened up its patent portfolio so that entrepreneurs and institutions can leverage on its knowledge and find new applications for these patents. Outbound innovation did not gain as much traction with organizations due to concerns about intellectual property protection. NASA is one of the rare exceptions, perhaps because it is a public agency that does not depend on its intellectual property for profit making.

    On the other hand, it is unclear if tournaments or crowdsourcing platform can effectively solve the STEM shortage. While crowdsourcing can effectively outsource simpler tasks like data collection, subjects that require deep knowledge and PHDs may not fit well into the open innovation model. NASA’s internal R&D will remain as the engine of innovation for the organisation and the need for highly trained STEM talents is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

  3. Given the recent success of SpaceX and Blue Origin, NASA’s hold on the imagination of young scientists and aspiring astronauts is rapidly deteriorating. Why deal with a bureaucratic government agency that is burdened by politics and a lack of funding when talented people are paid more to do more at private organizations? Space is truly becoming more accessible, and NASA is handling its needs in a very intriguing way. I love the idea of appealing to the general public’s passion for space and using that to source open innovation. NASA is uniquely positioned to accomplish this because of the humanitarian nature of its mission. I have concerns, however, with longevity of this “open innovation” relationship. As this “final frontier” becomes contested and militarized, what will happen to NASA’s access to this open innovation? From previous experience, I can say that open innovation does not work in an environment where state secrets, technology, and tactics are closely guarded. It is a very real possibility that as Space becomes privatized and more accessible, NASA is forced to become less about exploration and more entrenched in U.S policy interests. If this were to unfold, it will likely be less able/willing to engage in open innovation and once again more reliant on the government. It is important, therefore, that as NASA takes advantage of its “open innovation” relations it does not lose track of its traditional government funded R&D programs.

  4. Reading this piece I found it interesting to reflect on which types of problems are best solved through innovation and which are not. Or, perhaps rather, what ways of employing open innovation would save NASA more R&D costs compared to others. For example, when it was posed that open innovation could be used to source novel ideas I agreed that this would be a great use of crowdsourcing. However, I don’t think this would save NASA a large amount of R&D costs because crowdsourcing ideas is replacing the “brainstorming” phase of a project which, at least in my experience, costs less than researching and developing that idea. A use of crowdsourcing mentioned in this essay that would on the other hand save a lot of R&D time is the example of looking for movement against a motionless background. As stated in this reference (https://consumervaluecreation.com/2018/02/12/nasa-crowdsourcing-the-universe/) this saved NASA a lot of time, and therefore, money. So it appears not all crowdsourcing opportunities are created equal and some will save NASA more money than others. While gaining novel ideas from space enthusiasts would broaden the ideation funnel, if they end up needing to select some use-cases over others, the R&D cost saving spectrum will likely be a useful gauge to use.

  5. This article amazed me. Very interesting to rethink what NASA means, and its value proposition. I always thought the information was private, and that it was more of a competition to the stars than actually to partner, and maximize research for the advancement of the human kind as a whole. I also had a very wrong idea that NASA was super conservative, and reading this article, I am amazed of hoe the organization is managing to reenvent itslef and utilize trends of AI in their daily business.
    I would like to point out two main takeaways I have from this article. The first is towards the crowdfunding being able to be used internally and also external of the organization. I had never thought about how a company can use both tools to leverage knowledge. And intrigued to see how impactful it was for NASA.
    My second take away is towards how NASA is extremely committed in the advancements of technology. I worked for Braskem for the past 03 years helping a project of 3D Printing for space tools to facilitate the expenses of sending tools to space. And if they are using Additive Manufacturing, as well as Open Innovation, I am sure they are also using machine learning. So was interesting to see how NASA is trying to keep up woth these three megatrends we have been learning in TOM.

    To adress the question in the article, I would say that machine learning could actually be one way it could help filter the quantity of ideas, understanding better the sources and how to break the ideas down. I woudl say also, that I would create a team just to tackle ideas, specially because lots of new possibilities that have not been considered in NASA, can actually be very important for research. So I would try to have a team dedicated for open innovation platforms to maximize its value proposition.

  6. NASA’s use of open innovation is fascinating, especially given the general conception that the work it does requires deep scientific expertise. I believe that NASA can continue to use open innovation efficiently by avoiding truly open-ended questions. NASA has gained value from narrowly defined questions that directly benefit from crowdsourcing– such as the example you provided of 21,000 volunteers studying more than 100,000 images and identifying 5 million objects. This project benefited from the sheer number of volunteers, who provided more manpower than just one astronomer at NASA. By strictly defining the question, NASA will not get distracted by ideas.

  7. You suggest that open innovation allows NASA to evaluate multiple ideas at once. You cite Jessica Day in suggesting this allows idea to achieve a vetted solution faster. In her article she points out that this may be a product of the military and intelligence histories of the organisation. {1} How can open innovation walk the fine line between crowd sourcing innovation and potentially sharing highly sensitive information with the public? As alluded to by an earlier comment, NASA still only hires US citizens suggesting that national security remains a key concern throughout NASA’s work. If this is true, what are the limits of open innovation at NASA and by extension what are the risks? Also does open innovation risk NASA losing valuable intellectual property to other nations when space programs and the innovation that stems from its remain nationally significant?

    {1} Jessica Day. 12 January 2017. “How NASA Is Crowdsourcing Its Innovation Strategy.” IdeaScale, 12 Jan. 2017, ideascale.com/24571/.

  8. Thank you for this article. NASA’s foray into open innovation is very intriguing, given the organization’s historical context, and past fierce competition with international rivals such as the Soviet Union’s NSAU during the Space Race. I personally welcome this turn towards sharing knowledge and innovation and believe it is in keeping with the human ethos of growing and supporting each other in the interest of mutual survival. I am however skeptical about the future direction of NASA’s efforts, and whether there might be attempts to take future transformational innovations “black” to preserve NASA’s competitive advantage, denying the rest of the world democratized access to technological advances. Such a development might compromise the whole notion of open innovation, and drive humanity backwards a few notches in terms of openness to collaboration.

  9. Thanks for the article, E.T. It is fascinating to me that NASA is finding effective ideas directly through crowdsourcing. The Planet 9 example you pointed out was incredibly powerful. However, and to your last point, I do think NASA should set some sort of internal controls around this practice in order to avoid possibly getting distracted incorrect/irrelevant ideas. I also find your point on talent acquisition very relevant. Seems like a great introduction to highly qualified candidates.

  10. Thanks for the article! I find it really interesting that NASA is partnering with entrepreneurs and making their patent library open to help drive innovation. Given NASA mandate as a government organization, as well as the typically groundbreaking nature of progress in the space industry, I believe this public/private partnership can really spur innovation that would otherwise be too risky for private enterprise. I think NASA now need to invest in significant internal controls to keep track of the ideas it has coming in as well as prioritize high-potential projects.

  11. It was great to get visibility from you into how NASA uses crowdsourcing to solve complex, undefined problems. I know that NASA frequently partners with universities, governments, and organizations around the world to look at specific geo-political issues and investigate phenomenon in space. Talent acquisition in this field is too expensive in this industry. I think open innovation is a unique way to work around the insufficient human resource capabilities and maximize benefits from its intellectual property. Competitions spur new ideas and solutions to problems that NASA is facing. But to your first question, ideas sourced via this approach is too distracting. I would imagine its current capabilities make it difficult to evaluate and thoroughly assess ideas that are sourced. Many other institutions that use open innovation deal with the same challenge; NASA needs to narrow its scope. I am also concerned about how it incorporates participants and their ideas into their research and teams. I think the issue is more than a simple shift in mindset from problem solver to problem seeker among its employees.

  12. I love the idea of crowdsourcing innovation for big public challenges and think NASA is making a smart strategic move in going there. In fact, I think crowdsourcing is especially valuable for organizations like NASA, whose mission captures the imagination of many thousands of space enthusiasts and amateur scientists in the US and abroad. Open innovation allows people to feel connected to NASA’s work and provides NASA with free inputs for its initiatives. It’s a model that more public organizations should consider adopting — and to take it one step further, open innovation through this kind of model would be a smart addition to the US’ strategy for digital government writ large.

  13. Fascinating! It sounds like NASA has done an excellent job leveraging crowd-sourced innovation. One thing I do worry about is open innovation within government as part of a strategy to do more and more with less and less. It seems like there is sometimes a perception that open innovation is the secret sauce that can allow government agencies to thrive despite rapidly shrinking budgets. Unfortunately, I think this is largely a fallacy. While open innovation can be a useful tool, it relies on a strong and well-funded organization to truly thrive. If open innovation at NASA is to succeed long-term, they will need the ecosystem, in the form of highly trained PhDs and researchers that are able to devote their entire capacity towards these resources. While open source innovation should play some role in that process, it cannot replace it. Hopefully policymakers will not treat open innovation as a silver bullet, but rather think of it as a multiplier that can make existing efforts more effective.

  14. I do not think the distraction risk is so big. As long as NASA has hired a few very talented specialists in the area which can filter the big amount of new ideas, should be fine. They definitely need to structure the innovation funnel and make sure they review all of the ideas to not miss the good ones.
    Intellectual property issues are very complicated in a open source system and especially when an organization like NASA is involved. I think the way to go about it is to not aim for any patents or monopolization of the technology. I think that the ultimate goal is to explore the space using the best technology and not making money or stopping other companies using it. As long as anyone can contribute and at the same time use the system or build on it, there will be no big problems.

  15. Thank you for this essay – it is both inspirational and worrisome. It always amazes me to think about what NASA is attempting to do and how far we still need to go in so many different domains to figure out how to get humanity off of planet Earth. So much of what we focus on as individuals is near term, related to our work and possibly our country and rightly so – there are huge issues facing all the societies we come from and most of us do not have time to think about the universe. NASA is rightly seeking alternative ways to get around funding issues by outsourcing activities to the general population. This causes me some concern however, as there is merit in having an official backing for projects as opposed to relying on the crowd. Is it really possible to get a nation, or many nations, behind a crowd sourced idea? How will you know if an idea that really has potential gets the resources it needs? While I was not alive during the space race era, I hope to experience an age where humanity aspires to greatness beyond this world and if that is inspired by a crowd sourced idea, it would be even better.

  16. Dear E.T.,
    Thank you for the informative article on NASA’s open innovation process – very interesting!

    You mentioned that open innovation allows NASA to do 3 things: “learn about new technologies, crowdsource novel ideas, and tap into high skilled individuals”. Yet the example that you provided used “astronomers and space enthusiasts” to look at 100,000 images. Are astronomers and space enthusiasts really high skilled? I disagree that it is achieving any of the 3 aims stated earlier. Instead, it is outsourcing cheap repetitive work that saves some money, but isn’t creating a step change for NASA.

    I think that open innovation can achieve these 3 aims by focusing on two areas of innovation: incremental and revolutionary change. Small scale issues – for example optimising a pump’s performance, designing a light weight gyroscope, overcoming a heating issues – requires innovative thinking from highly skilled people. (Speaking from experience of these tricky issues) often the more of them who see it, the better ideas you get. NASA’s budget limits the number of specialists it can employ. But why not create a network of technical specialists across the US (or, security permitting, other countries) who can view some of these issues, suggest ideas, and the winners get a small prize (it could be non-monetary)? My previous company did this to great effect.

    For larger scale innovation – for example designing a new spacecraft architecture – requires thinking from multi-disciplinary groups. How can NASA best do this? Perhaps allowing teams to compete against each other, not just from schools/universities? Or maybe combining specialists from across the US in teams competing against each other?

  17. Something not mentioned in the article is the possibility of monetary incentives for open innovation participation. Interest in NASA and space, although increasing in the last decade, is still at a much lower level than in the Apollo decades. By incentivizing more participation through prize-backed projects on platforms like Kaggle, NASA could drum up significant press and more interest in the space in general. This could also have non-R&D benefits, such as hiring better STEM talent.

    Additionally, partnering with universities is another interesting angle in the open innovation space. In the first exhibit, I noticed the Harvard crest and was curious how the research community on campus was involved in NASA’s programs. If NASA co-sponsors research positions or initiatives, this could be another cost-effective way to obtain the best research in the country without having to hire the talent directly.

  18. The choice of organization is a source a fascination and interest. NASA typically operates in the domain of high applied science, dealing with the most challenging problems. If open innovation works in this context, it is reasonable to be hopeful that it would work anywhere. It was also intriguing to read about the various mechanism through which NASA solicits open innovation. The idea of innovation prizes has been used effectively in other areas like health and humanotarian challenges with great success. I would be very interested to further understand how well this mechanism works in contrast to other programs.
    On the other hand, Im am not sure how the example used, of thousands of volunteers participating in image recognition, represents an instance of cloud sourced ‘innovation’. It sounds more like an open participation program more so than an open innovation initiative.

  19. Thanks ET – love the topic (and the handle).

    I find the premise of this article interesting – using crowdsourcing to crunch through massive data sets. Rather than answer to the topics you raised (which have already been thoroughly discussed above), I’d like to note an irony. The project highlighted above seems more like a use case for ML or image processing. While free human labor is great, I think it’s likely that a) not all image sets will get attention by the most careful or trained participants, and b) even those that do are subject to human fallibility. Seems like a job best suited to a computer, no?

  20. Thank you for the thorough piece. It is very interesting to see how NASA is generating new ideas through Open Innovation. I find the process very similar to what some large corporations have sought to accomplish via in-house incubators or corporate venture capital arms and could not help but to think that a similar model may help to institutionalize NASA’s efforts. For example, some consumer-focused companies such as Chobani, have set up incubators through which they gain “early looks” at brands that they otherwise would end up having to acquire for substantially higher prices in the future [1]. As a government agency, NASA should consider establishing an incubator through which to award grants to teams pursuing new ideas or developing startups tackling the organization’s biggest challenges.

    1. Angelica LaVito, ” Chobani Incubator to Help 7 Companies Take on Big Food”, CNBC, September 26, 2018, [https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/26/chobani-incubator-to-help-7-companies-take-on-big-food.html], accessed November 2018.

  21. It is clear that the external community is expanding and the sector reacting to a few consequences (e.g., focusing on ideas that are not quite compelling). In the specific case of NASA, I believe the leadership of the organization should stick to its long-term strategy of innovation and been really thoughtful and focused on the core ideas. My suggestion for the property issues would be to analyze the IP issue with open innovation on a case by case basis. Presumably, there will be instances in which it will be beneficial for the society if NASA allows other to use the open innovation.

  22. I think your recommendation for NASA to develop better protocols for validating crowd-sourced solutions is vital. In your example, where 21,000 volunteers studied 100,000 images, I would imagine the volunteers used many different methods to do this task, some of which may have been applied incorrectly. Therefore, NASA would need to spend significant time and resources on quality-control on the results of this crowd sourced challenge. Moreover, maybe a few of these volunteers came up with radically different and efficient methods for detecting moving objects – how would NASA be able to identify these unique methods among the sea of submissions? So while I see how crowd sourcing can be immensely useful, I am also worried about the challenge of validating and understanding the huge amount of results it will generate.

  23. I think creating a good platform for open innovation could actually help NASA sift through the ideas. If you open up the evaluation process to be open source, similar to companies like product hunt or reddit, it could allow employees do the initial evaluation. This will also have the added benefit of increasing the quality and quantity of ideas generated, as well as increase engagement and employee satisfaction.

  24. Great article – it is interesting to see how NASA is leveraging open innovation. It is definitely not an organization that comes to mind when I think of crowdsourcing. I think it’s a great strategy – the Challenge 9 example you gave shows how much can be accomplished in such a short amount of time through open innovation. For an organization like this, I agree that strict control measures have to be put in place to ensure the contributions meet some quality threshold. I think a screening process for volunteers should be required.
    To your question on distraction, I think NASA should have clearly defined problems in line with it’s long-term goals and solicit input from its volunteers for the defined problem, vs soliciting any and all input from the external community.

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