Expanding Open Innovation at NASA

In the last decade, NASA started using Open Innovation approaches to solve some of the world's most complicated problems. Now, the company will need to think about how to solve potential implementation challenges as the company scales up these approaches.

The importance of Open Innovation at NASA

In its 60 years of history, the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) has been able to attract the most accomplished researchers in the world to come up with innovative solutions and intellectual property that would give the USA a technological edge.

However, even a company with the most impressive scientists can benefit from the fresh perspectives and creativity that Open Innovation offers. NASA recognised “the power of public ingenuity in solving tough problems”[1]. Figure 1 exemplifies the additional software developer expertise that NASA could have access to by taking part in Open Innovation platforms, such as Topcoder:

Figure 1: Distribution of number of people and expertise, Topcoder vs. NASA [5]
Therefore, NASA launched the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) in 2011 [2]. Through its challenges, NASA started encouraging individuals, private or public organisations to try to solve problems in exchange for a financial prize (e.g., $1 million for ideas on how to turn carbon dioxide into glucose as part of Mars mission [3]). Especially in the low-Earth orbit (LEO), this “has fundamentally changed NASA’s role from an orchestrating/directing role, to a more ‘facilitating’ one”[4].

These challenges have proved to deliver fast solutions [6] with the advantage of only paying for success [7]. The following overview (Figure 2) shows the very positive results of the challenges since the NASA Open Innovation Service (NOIS) contract launch. 98% of the challenges resulted in cost and 90% in time savings.

Figure 2: Challenge Results Dashboard [5]
Today, these challenges are still a small part of NASA’s research processes. However, given the positive results of the challenges so far, I really believe that Open Innovation will become a key driver of NASA’s research strategies in the next years.


Expanding Open Innovation approaches

In the short term, NASA will keep encouraging people to work on its challenges (here is a list of current challenges: https://www.nasa.gov/offices/coeci/challenges/open ). The company is expanding this approach to access a broader user base using different platforms, such as (see Figure 3 for full platform landscape):

  • Private communities for solving challenges (e.g., Kaggle)
  • Internal NASA platforms (NASA@work) to foster collaboration and innovation within NASA
  • Most recently, the US government owned Challenge.org platform, aimed to solving challenges that will help the US

Figure 3: NASA Tournament Lab landscape [8]
In the longer term, the company will start exploring and expanding other kinds of Open Innovation venues. At the end of 2015, NASA started to experiment with a radically new type of Open Innovation opening up a large repertoire of patents that startups could use at no cost [9][10]. Startups taking part in this initiative would only need to start paying a royalty payment to NASA once they actually start selling their product or service [11].


This new idea, completely opposite to the traditional efforts of not sharing intellectual property, will, in my opinion, be the main Open Innovation area for NASA in the next years. The company is building something similar to a Venture Capital unit and will start seeing financial benefits soon, as these startups start selling their products.


Additional steps required

In the short term, NASA should focus on improving and standardizing the processes used to interact with the different crowdsourcing platforms (e.g., Kaggle) and people participating in the challenges. As shown in Figure 3, NASA is currently using several different 3rd parties to expand its Open Innovation strategy. Since each platform has different requirements (problem specifications, data requirements, etc.) and a different customer base, I think there is a large potential in standardizing the interaction with these companies or even focusing only on the ones bringing the best results.


In the longer term, I see company culture as the main area in which NASA will need to take additional steps. During some of the past Open Innovation trials, one of the most challenging barriers turned out to be professional identity [6][12]. NASA employees, used to being the best solving problems in their fields, had to switch from being “problem solvers” to formulating problems for others [12]. Therefore “only R&D professionals who underwent identity refocusing work dismantled their boundaries” [12]. As Open Innovation grows within NASA, I would recommend the management to change the criteria by which they hire people in order to account for these team work traits and to foster a new company culture that focuses on company rather than individual success.


Open questions

Will NASA’s ability to think long term (in terms of research) be affected by the expansion of Open Innovation (challenges focus on smaller discrete problems)?

Given the importance of confidentiality at NASA, how will the company be able to successfully embed more and more 3rd parties in its R&D efforts and maintain confidentiality at the same time?


(Word count: 781)


[1] NASA. Open Innovation – About Us. [online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/openinnovation/aboutus [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[2] NASA. COECI Overview. [online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/offices/COECI/about/overview.html [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[3] Hallie Detrick. 2018. NASA’s Mars Mission will give you $1 million to turn Carbon Dioxide into Glucose. [online] Fortune. Available at: http://fortune.com/2018/09/03/nasa-mars-mission-co2-contest/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[4] Mazzucato, M. and Robinson, D. (2018). Co-creating and directing Innovation Ecosystems? NASA’s changing approach to public-private partnerships in low-earth orbit. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 136, pp.166-177.

[5] NASA. The Power of Crowd Based Challenges. [online] Available at: https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20170012345.pdf [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[6] Hila Lifshitz-Assaf, Michael L. Tushman, Karim R. Lakhani. (2018). A Study of NASA Scientists Shows How to Overcome Barriers to Open Innovation. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/05/a-study-of-nasa-scientists-shows-how-to-overcome-barriers-to-open-innovation [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[7] NASA. Problem Solving Approaches at NASA: Challenges, Prize Competitions, and Crowdsourcing[online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/NASA-Solve-FS.pdf [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[8] NASA. NASA Tournament Lab. [online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/coeci/ntl [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[9] Brian Fung. (2015). NASA is opening up hundreds of patents to investors, for free. [online] The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/10/07/nasa-is-opening-up-hundreds-of-patents-to-inventors-for-free/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ed2e8d470e9d [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[10] Moftah, B. (2015). NASA’s Open Innovation Could Unlock The Future. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/basilmoftah/2015/10/21/nasas-venture-into-open-innovation-could-unlock-the-future/#1ab9aa06b589 [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[11] NASA. Startup NASA. [online] Available at: https://technology.nasa.gov/startup [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018].

[12] Lifshitz-Assaf, H. (2017). Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 63(4), pp.746-782.


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Student comments on Expanding Open Innovation at NASA

  1. Thank you for your article! I completely agree that open innovation can unlock tremendous potential in space exploration, as exemplified by the economies of scale and technology introduced by private companies like SpaceX. That said, your question about confidentiality is crucial, and a true challenge with any open innovation platform. In order to tackle the confidentiality question, I would recommend delving deeper into your first question and reframing it: what is NASA’s mission?

    NASA excelled when it had a clear mission (e.g. land a man on the moon), however today there seems to be a myriad of opportunities – from expanding satellite networks to landing people on Mars -, each requiring substantial sums of money and lacking strong political support. As a result, operationalizing any initiative at NASA has been met with resistance, leading to ineffective execution. Confidentiality has exacerbated this lack of vision by surrounding missions with uncertainty and confusion.

    In order to excel at open innovation, I believe NASA will have to clearly outline commercializable objectives, similar to SpaceX, that will help it regain momentum on non-confidential projects and build an open innovation community upon which it can rely for future, more sensitive projects. Such commercial opportunities could include expanding satellite networks, growing public space tourism or even exploring space mining opportunities. Open innovation would allow for substantial input in these initiatives without significant confidentiality concerns or a need for a strong mission.

  2. In addition to providing a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of NASA, this article asks a critical question – how will this open innovation impact employees? As open innovation, machine learning, additive manufacturing and other technological trends are harnessed by companies, the required skillsets of the companies’ internal workforces will shift. In this case, the author recommends a change to hiring criteria to focus more on skillful management vs. technical competence.

    I agree with this recommendation but believe that this is representative – on a micro level – of a macro shift in the types of skills that employers will seek in their employees over the next decade. A crucial outstanding question is how governments, educational institutions, and job training organizations will help an existing workforce build these skills?

  3. In a world where NASA’s funding is under threat of being cut, using open innovation to help generate ideas and solutions, while only paying on a success basis, is a highly strategic way to continue to operate at a high level while keeping operating costs low. However, I agree that there is reason for concern in thinking about how this move will affect long-term strategic planning.

    Open Innovation in this context would be most helpful for discrete challenges, particularly ones where there is little threat of competition. However, investing in something like the mission to send a man to the moon, which was a ten-year project, would require tight project management and direction from within NASA itself. The company has to be careful about ensuring that they invest in projects such as this while using open innovation to solve problems that can reasonably be outsourced.

  4. I don’t believe open Innovation will decrease NASA’s ability to develop more long term, complex projects (in opposition to the ones that can be tackled in “challenges”). I really like the idea of using open innovation to actually find and hire talent, and NASA being a company that needs to be at the edge of innovation all the time, it makes perfect sense. They can use the challenges to identify the best minds and make them a full time job offer, where they can focus on the long term research and development of more complex projects. Also, the way they started innovating within the Open Innovation space – allowing startups to use some of their patents at no cost until they are actually producing the products to sale, can also be a huge growth opportunity, as they can eventually make offers to acquire companies that develop very innovative and useful products

  5. I feel skeptical about Open innovation at NASA. This is an organization which is responsible for a lot of critical information and I am not sure that how the organization plans to go about sharing ideas with the outside world. I am also skeptical to the value add to the organization. NASA does not need new idea. NASA needs solutions to current intellectually challenging problems. Also these solutions cant be discussed in an open forum. And therefore I am not sure if OPen Innovation at an organization like NASA would be too successful.

  6. Thanks for sharing—this is a very interesting look at how open innovation is shaping the operations of one of the world’s most recognizable scientific organizations! Over the past few years, we have seen a surge in open platforms increasing transparency in an effort to advance idea generation. One example that comes to mind is OpenAI which has democratized the development of AI/ML technologies to accelerate progress but also ensure distribution of power associated with this technology. In a similar sense, NASA benefits from others’ input without necessarily making the same sacrifices private companies would have to exchange by releasing patents and intellectual property.

    That said, there may be concerns regarding NASA’s control, mission, and sense of purpose. Without a centralized view or direction, it is difficult for small projects to come together to support long-term success. I also imagine there may be some security tradeoffs as aerospace and defense agencies worldwide will have access to NASA’s cutting-edge patents and technologies. Furthermore, the legacy organization may reject this new role as contributors become question-askers rather than problem-solvers. It may be beneficial to use the IBM Watson approach and have teams working in parallel to the “garage band of engineers” instead of relying so heavily on outsourced contributions.

  7. The ability to successfully execute long term projects should not be effected by expanding Open Innovation if NASA can strike a balance. NASA would be wise to increase its reliance on Open Innovation for discrete problems, or open problems that do not require project management. For example, using online crowdsourced platforms to have enthused members of the public search data for new asteroids, planets, and stars is a great way to employ crowdsourcing to solve an open problem [1]. Similarly, as discussed by the article and peer responses, discrete tasks such as an issue with one aspect of a project is an ideal way to free up resources and increase efficiency through Open Innovation. However, NASA should retain a strong core team of engineers and support staff for larger projects such as manned and rover missions. The nature of these projects requires strong project management skills and a cohesive team of engineers that are familiar with the project as a whole. Relying too heavily on Open Innovation could comprise these projects by miss managing the complexity and many moving parts integral to these project’s success.

    Regarding confidentiality, NASA should navigate the confidentiality issues by treating Open Innovation like any other contracting service. The U.S. government loves to contract out services even on top secret projects such as weapon development and counter-intelligence. For more confidential issues, NASA could offer the Open Innovation challenge to a smaller list of pre-approved and trusted Open Innovators. Perhaps it will evolve to a point where Open Innovators will have to hold some sort of security clearance to bid on government Open Innovation challenges. A niche Open Innovation market could evolve.

    [1] Garner, Rob. “Funded Website Lets Public Search for New Nearby Worlds.” NASA. February 15, 2017. Accessed November 15, 2018. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/nasa-funded-website-lets-public-search-for-new-nearby-worlds.

  8. Really great article! Following the trend of open innovation that is outlined in this article, I wonder if more and more space missions will be driven as a collaboration between thought leaders and innovators across the globe as opposed to any one country or organization. With SpaceX and other private companies entering this field, it seems like times are changing for space exploration and becoming more accessible to people in general, not just top-scientists with years and years of training in a particular field. I think this is especially valuable in an area like space exploration, where people rally around a common goal, independently of boundaries.
    I wonder if NASA can further incentivize inventors by acquiring talent through these 3rd party platforms and thus hiring people with a collaborative, innovative mindset and progressively changing their internal culture over the years.

  9. Great article! I’m very interested in how NASA can leverage open innovation to free its employees to do more than they do today. Faced with declining budgets, our nation’s most inspiring agency has been forced to cut back on “moonshot” projects that would otherwise fill our imaginations. Open innovation has the potential to undermine the work and effort of existing NASA employees, but, if it is done right, I believe it could accelerate their potential. The best employees in a creative environment like this (sure its science, but its essentially creating new ways of doing things) are those who can ask the right questions and frame the hardest problems in an accessible way. NASA has enormous potential to benefit from more open innovation.

  10. The open innovation has always been a great initiative for every organization to have, however, when the incentives are not properly aligned, there might be some issues to push the innovation forward within the organization. How does the open innovation really impact employees? ement vs. technical competence. How they will balance their existing work and the innovation challenge? Will they have the skills need to go for the challenge?

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