An Inside Look at How NASA Broke Out of its Innovation Shell

Posted by InnoCentive on Sep 3, 2018 10:32:00 AM

When people think of NASA, they think of innovation, creativity and pushing the boundaries of what is humanly possible. It’s the organization that put a man on the moon, is actively pursuing a mission to Mars, and, through various R&D contracts, helped develop a variety of consumer technology that includes temper foam, LASIK, scratch-resistant lenses and invisible braces.

However, despite the organization’s advancements, accomplishments, and decades of constantly pushing boundaries, not even this innovation leader is impervious to one of R&D’s most common pitfalls: insulation from outside ideas. When organizations close themselves off from “non-experts” and outside influencers, it creates an echo-chamber of the same ideas being recycled over and over again, leading to R&D departments hitting walls in their pursuit of new and innovative ideas.

How NASA Broke Out of its Shell

Back in June, we shared a study conducted by researchers working with NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate. Over the course of this study, researchers tracked 14 different issues the organization was struggling to solve. Once open innovation and crowdsourcing platforms were introduced to the organization, three of the issues were solved quickly, one in as little as three months. We briefly discussed the findings and why they should matter to R&D professionals, and today we diving deeper into what the study found and how.

Read the full study here.

Inside the Study 

NASA posted 14 R&D problems on three different innovation platforms, one of them being InnoCentive’s InnoCentive’s Challenge-Driven Innovation™ platform. The rewards for the challenges ranged from $15,000 to $30,000 USD (these rewards were minuscule compared to the overall R&D budgets NASA had allocated). At the same time, NASA’s own R&D professionals worked on the issues, including collaboration with other experts in the fields of:

  • Microbiology
  • Heliophysics
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Radiation
  • Material science
  • Medical devices

This was pursuant of the traditional method of innovation and “best practices,” which dictates that only domain experts can solve the challenging R&D problems within their own fields. The open innovation platforms, on the other hand, opened up the challenges to solvers from all over the world, regardless of their main fields of expertise. While NASA’s original model entailed collaboration and negotiations between NASA’s groups and other professionals over the course of several years (their average R&D life cycle was three to five years), the new open innovation model broke down these barriers and allowed any professional located anywhere in the world to access and solve the problems.

After three months, NASA had over 100 diverse professionals working the issues. The crowdsourcing platforms had over 3,000 diverse Solvers from 80 different countries. More than 300 solutions were submitted by these individuals, and NASA’s R&D professionals were “surprised by their quality.” After reviewing the solutions, NASA professionals quickly concluded that three of the issues had been solved, and six partially solved.

Solved Issues 

  1. Mechanism for a compact aerobic and resistive exercise device (using InnoCentive’s open innovation platform)
  2. Data-driven forecasting of solar events (using InnoCentive’s open innovation platform)
  3. Medical kit optimization algorithm (using a software crowdsourcing platform)

Partially Solved 

  1. Coordination of sensor swarms for extraterrestrial research device (using InnoCentive’s open innovation platform)
  2. Medical consumables tracking device (using InnoCentive’s open innovation platform)
  3. Simple microgravity laundry system device (using InnoCentive’s open innovation platform)
  4. Improved barrier layers keeping food fresh in space (using InnoCentive’s open innovation platform and one other platform)
  5. Preventing growth of and removing micro-organisms and bio-films from a potable water system (using another crowdsourcing platform)
  6. Bone imaging to assess the microstructure of ‘‘spongy’’ bone that is found in the marrow cavities of whole bones (using another crowdsourcing platform) 

During the same period, the traditional processes yielded no major advances in any of the 14 R&D challenges. The study quoted one lead NASA scientist as saying, ‘‘In general, it is known that to receive a solution for that cost [the open innovation award] would not be possible otherwise. Turnaround time for a solution like this could take years [under the standard R&D model].’’

What Happened After

In the years after these solutions were provided by individuals outside the normal network of NASA professionals and contractors, NASA found that many of their R&D specialists had completely dismantled the notion that R&D needs to be a closed-off process with very little outside involvement. Those who did not embrace the model, according to interviews with them, were focused on self-preservation and protecting the boundaries of their work, despite the overwhelming evidence that open innovation produced what some called “home-run” solutions. 

While some individuals still remained closed off, many at NASA, in the years to follow, would come to embrace crowdsourced solutions. One lead scientist put it best: 

‘‘Your main responsibility is to seek for solutions. They may come from the lab, from open innovation, or from collaboration. You should not care! You are the solution seeker!’’ 

Learn more about open innovation and crowdsource solutions by contacting InnoCentive today. 

Topics: Innovation Insights, Challenges

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