This is a review of a series of research articles published following extensive research by Professor Hila Lifshitz-Assaf during the roll-out of NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate (SLSD) Open Innovation program. Here we report the highlights and lessons learnt from this case. The scientific articles are linked at the bottom for further reading.

The Case for Open Innovation

Companies are increasingly aware that innovation cannot be considered solely an activity that is carried out within the firm boundaries. Open Innovation (OI), a term coined by Henry Chesbrough in 2003, highlights all the different ways in which firms can look outside both to gain new ideas for innovation, but also to gain more from the innovation they develop in-house. In-bound open innovation encompasses all the activities that companies use to draw new ideas and solutions from outside the firm. This includes activities such as joint R&D agreements with other companies, collaborating with startups, promoting hackathons and idea competitions, or crowdsourcing. Instead, out-bound open innovation is necessary to capitalize on all the innovation that a firm produces, including the technology or ideas it doesn’t apply in its products or services. Examples of out-bound open innovation may include licensing technology to other companies, or creating spin-off firms centered around a particular technology which would be better commercialized outside the firm.

The case for OI is particularly compelling in an industry such as space that experiences complex technological challenges and has an active and enthusiastic global community. However, the successful implementation of an OI program is not a simple task, especially within established teams that have no previous experience of such an approach to innovation.

The case of NASA SLSD

The SLSD found itself drawn towards OI as a way to reduce R&D costs in the wake of increasing budget cuts that life science research in space was experiencing. The particular OI model selected was in-bound and involving the general public, through the publication of problems or challenges on open platforms such as InnoCentive, yet2com, and TopCoder. The best response to a particular challenge received a monetary reward. They selected several projects as pilots and received great solutions from independent engineers and scientists in different parts of the world, and the engineers who ran the pilots were enthusiastic.

When they attempted to involve the remainder of the staff, however, they encountered several types of resistance.

Issues with OI

The issues encountered by NASA can be grouped into three categories and generalized for companies:

  • Fear of losing control of the outcomes of the innovation process—because external actors will be able to propose their own solutions—and fear of losing one’s status as an innovator if someone from outside the company comes up with a better solution to a given problem.
  • Confidentiality issues arising from the fact that information on technology problems currently being researched within the company implementing OI will be released to the outside world or the public, and especially for commercial businesses, this could alert their competitors to the R&D projects being pursued. Personal confidentiality issues also arise that stem from having to “admit” that there are issues to which no solution has been found within the company.
  • Not-invented-here-syndrome is a well-known behavioral pattern that causes people to reject ideas that their organization or team didn’t come up with themselves, regardless of their merits.

But most of all, according to Prof. Lifshitz-Assaf, scientists and engineers at NASA had to change their identity as innovators in order to properly embrace OI. Indeed, most of the scientists and engineers displayed a problem-solver mentality, where the person who contributed to solving a technical challenge was celebrated as a “hero”. The fact of being the solvers of problems was indeed what motivated the staff to work at NASA in the first place. Their identity was therefore that of being “innovators”.

How SLSD implemented OI

Besides creating a legal framework that could properly ensure that procurement processes could technically and legally be conducted with the external environment, the main breakthrough in successfully involving their staff in the OI project came from accompanying a mentality shift from “problem-solvers” to “solution-seekers”. Indeed, the key skill required to initiate a successful OI request is to pose a problem clearly and in a way that will solicit solutions from outside the firm. Management therefore created a new identity that was just as celebrated as being an “innovator”, that of a “solution-seeker”, who would actively search for a solution to a problem both within and outside SLSD. This then led to a progressive dismantling of the separation between SLSD’s internal and external R&D activities by those who adopted the solution-seeker role. Others who did not recognize the new role, did not end up opening their processes to OI.

So as astropreneurs, you should reflect on the type of innovative activities you would like to conduct within your firm. A good balance of innovators and solution-seekers could be paramount in being able to capitalize both on internal R&D while also being able to search for additional solutions outside the firm in an Open Innovation perspective.

Posted by Paola Belingheri

Further Reading:

Dismantling Knowledge Boundaries at NASA: The Critical Role of Professional Identity in Open Innovation

Houston, we have a problem: NASA and Open Innovation