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