Seeker Spotlight: NASA

Posted by Steve Bonadio on Dec 21, 2012 10:14:31 AM

In collaboration with NASA, we launched the NASA Innovation Pavilion in late 2009. Seven Challenges were launched over the course of several months, in total attracting nearly 3,000 Solvers, 360 solution submissions, and all of the Challenges were awarded either fully or partially. Since this time, NASA has been and continues to leverage our InnoCentive@Work platform for promoting collaboration and problem solving internally within the agency. Today, we’re very pleased to announce that NASA’s Pavilion is once again back in action with two new Challenges for our Solvers to tackle. We recently spoke with Jenn Gustetic, Prizes and Challenges Program Executive for NASA, about the re-invigoration of the Pavilion and the new Challenges now posted online.

Hello Ms. Gustetic – thanks for joining us today. We’re thrilled that the Pavilion is back online with two (and we hope many, many more) Challenges now posted. What were your primary motivations for jumping “back in the saddle?”

Thanks for having me! We’re also thrilled that the Pavilion currently has two active Challenges on it, and we’re excited to see the innovative ideas that the public will provide.

I’m proud to say that NASA has been a leader in the Federal government’s use of prize competitions for quite some time. We’re an agency founded on solving tough problems and we believe in the power of open innovation to help address those problems in partnership with innovators from around the country and the world. The White House recently recognized this leadership in their 2012 Report to Congress on prize competitions: "From the Centennial Challenges Program, to the NASA Open Innovation Pavilion, to the NASA Tournament Lab, NASA leads the public sector in the breadth and depth of experience and experimentation with prizes and challenges." So continuing our use of the Pavilion is consistent both with our problem solving philosophy and our leadership role in government.

NASA is on the cutting edge of adopting new processes, methods, and technologies to drive innovation. How does the use of open innovation Challenges to generate new ideas and solve important problems fit within the broader context of NASA’s overall innovation agenda?

At NASA, prizes complement our other traditional problem solving approaches to create a robust toolset of innovation and engagement approaches for use by a variety of programs. Open innovation, specifically through incentive prizes, offers many unique benefits that enhance our problem solving toolkit. Prize competitions allow NASA and other agencies to:

  • Establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed
  • Benefit from novel approaches without bearing high levels of risk
  • Reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of minds tackling a problem
  • Bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear
  • Increase cost-effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars
  • Enable us to pay only for success

The first new Challenge, Strain Measurement of Vectran and Kevlar Webbing, has been online for a few weeks now and closes on January 2, 2013. More than 300 Solvers have already signed up to participate. What are some of the key attributes you’d like to see in a winning solution?

The Challenge owner team from NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia – Melvin Ferebee, Karen Whitley, Lynn Bowman, and Thomas Jones – has been very pleased to see the level of participation that this Challenge has already generated. According to the team, some key aspects of a successful solution would include:

  • Feasibility to build and use the solution in the near term at a reasonable cost (i.e., less than 10,000 USD)
  • Minimal to no impact on the test specimen properties
  • Provide repeatable, accurate strain measurement

Another Challenge that posted earlier this week, Non-invasive Measurement of Intracranial Pressure, seeks a novel technology to measure intracranial pressure and intracranial pressure changes. These changes are believed to be associated with fluid shifts in astronauts’ bodies during spaceflight. What are some of the key limitations of existing technologies currently being employed?

According to the Challenge owner team from Johnson Space Center in Texas – Jennifer Villarreal, Susana Zanello, and Jennifer Fogarty – the key limitations with technologies explored so far are that known measurement technologies are either invasive or too inaccurate to be acceptable for repeated measurements over time. When invasive measures are conducted on Earth, patients are surrounded by doctors and hospitals and there are seemingly unlimited resources if things were to go wrong. Whereas in space, there are limitations on the operators’ training (i.e., not likely a doctor) and capabilities for responding to an adverse event are limited. That is why we are searching for non-invasive methodologies to reduce the risk of an adverse event in space. Non-invasive techniques are limited in that the measure of intracranial pressure is indirect and requires an algorithm to interpret the data. Further, the indirect measurement may be different in space (microgravity) than on earth.

What would your advice be to a Solver who thinks to herself “well, if NASA’s ‘rocket scientists’ can’t figure it out, then there’s no way that I can.”

I would tell her to be confident in what she knows, and that often methods from other disciplines can help NASA discover new ways to address old problems. You don’t have to be an expert in aerospace engineering or science to offer us new insights that can be useful for us and end in a cash prize for you. It’s truly a win/win!

For example, a few years ago, the Space Life Sciences Directorate of NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center launched a Challenge on this very same Pavilion for a predictive algorithm to help protect our astronauts from radiation exposure in space. Over 500 problem solvers from 53 countries answered NASA’s call. Expecting no solutions for a long-intractable problem, NASA received a solution that exceeded its requirements from a retired radio-frequency engineer in rural New Hampshire, Bruce Cragin. Cragin’s winning approach forecast solar proton events 8 hours in advance with 85% accuracy, a result dubbed "outstanding." In a survey of the nearly 3,000 Solvers that competed in seven NASA prizes on the Pavilion in 2009 and 2010, 81% reported that they had never before responded to a government request for proposals – let alone worked with NASA – evidence of the expanded talent pool that prize competitions can attract.

Looking into your crystal ball, can our Solvers expect additional Challenges from NASA in 2013? Any high-level themes come to mind?

NASA is working to make prizes a tool in our agency’s problem solving toolkit. To that end, the public should expect to see a variety of different types of prizes over the coming years: technology demonstration prizes like those run by NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program; software development prizes like those run by NASA Tournament Lab; ideation, theoretical, and prototype prizes like those run on this very Pavilion; and several other new models. We’re very excited to continue engaging with Solvers to further NASA’s mission. Together we can reach the stars! YOU can be a rocket scientist with NASA!

Thanks for your time Ms. Gustetic. Any final advice to our Solvers as they tackle these exciting Challenges?

Have fun. Challenge yourself. Learn. Teach. Collaborate with other innovators. Use prizes, not only as a means to refine your own skills, but to develop a great network of innovators just by participating fully. We’ve seen several great new relationships blossom out of prizes – even when the competition ends, the relationship remains. Happy solving!

Topics: Innovation Insights, Seekers

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