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”. Figure 1 exemplifies the additional software developer expertise that NASA could have access to by taking part in Open Innovation platforms, such as Topcoder:
Therefore, NASA launched the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) in 2011 . 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 ). Especially in the low-Earth orbit (LEO), this “has fundamentally changed NASA’s role from an orchestrating/directing role, to a more ‘facilitating’ one”.
These challenges have proved to deliver fast solutions  with the advantage of only paying for success . 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.
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
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 . 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 .
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 . NASA employees, used to being the best solving problems in their fields, had to switch from being “problem solvers” to formulating problems for others . Therefore “only R&D professionals who underwent identity refocusing work dismantled their boundaries” . 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.
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?
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