A nice paycheck is great, but people with big brains also need challenges that spark the imagination and tap into the excitement of discovery. Tom Campbell understands this about the scientists and aerospace engineers he encounters as the newly minted director of innovation at space and intelligence systems manufacturer Harris Corp. (it helps that he’s a mechanical engineer himself).
Last May, Campbell and Bill Gattle, president of the company’s Space and Intelligence Systems division, came up with a new way of encouraging engineers to think creatively: the Innovation Office. An in-house cross between a venture capital firm and a traditional Department of Defense model, it aims to nurture seedling ideas with time, collaboration, and funding.
The plan is that twice a year, the call will go out to employees to submit their best “on the edge” ideas for consideration for up to $50,000 in seed funding. Ideas get preference if they encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration and focus on primary areas like alternate position, navigation and timing techniques, low-cost surveillance capabilities and data analytics, and tools for collecting information about weather and climate.
During the inaugural call last year, Campbell received 120 proposals from Harris engineers and scientists around the country. Forty idea-pitchers got callbacks for more details, and about 20 of those received up to $50,000 each in funding and 90 days to show proof of concept.
After the 90 days, five projects received a second, bigger injection of funding “so they can achieve much more,” says Campbell, who has a staff of four.
Ultimately, the hope is that a leader in one of Harris’ business areas “will fall in love in with an idea and actively go to market with it,” says Campbell.
The Innovation Office's aim is to “futureproof” the company by encouraging boundary-pushing work, says Campbell. The effort comes at a time when the Pentagon worries about the United States losing technological ground and has begun to look to Silicon Valley upstarts for answers.
Traditionally, projects at Harris are focused on a business need in the next one to three years, “the next big win for the company. The ideas I’m after are the ones that don’t fall into that category,” says Campbell. “They’re either further out in time or a little bit away from the core technology.”
Rachele Cocks, a lead engineer in the Space and Intelligence division in Fort Wayne, Ind., last year pitched an innovation idea for the use of gravity as an alternate navigation technology. The idea received two rounds of funding, and she now spends about 75% of her work time on the project, leading a team of scientists and engineers from different divisions within Harris and Exelis.
“It’s been a great opportunity to travel to different locations in Harris, and to get connected with other scientists that I wouldn’t have been introduced to in other work opportunities,” she says. “And I get to work on something I’m really passionate about.”
The Fort Wayne facility is focused on weather satellites, but Cocks is collaborating with engineers focused on position navigation and timing in Clifton, N.J., and on communications in Melbourne, Fla.
“It escalates as the project moves forward,” Cocks says. “It’s been really exciting and fast-paced. Everything moves very quickly.”
The Innovation Office has a physical space at Harris’ Melbourne headquarters to encourage free thinking and collaboration. A bright, open area in the glass-walled building is outfitted with a 3D printer, lightweight prototyping tools and “fun furniture,” says Campbell. Engineers from different divisions in the company can tinker away and float ideas that might become something bigger.
Campbell says the innovation push couldn’t have come at a better time, as Harris merged with Exelis Corp. in May 2015, and the innovation project encourages employees with complementary specialties to collaborate. Harris has a long history in radio frequency communications and geospatial analysis, while Exelis’ specialties include satellite imagery. Exelis was originally part of Kodak and “its huge legacy of imagery,” including space and weather images.
“The two organizations together can do much more,” says Campbell of Harris and Exelis. “This program is able to mash people together, causing them to see ways that they can collaborate.”
For example, Harris manufactures deployable antennas that unfold and expand once they reach their destination in space; in the call for submissions an Exelis engineer pitched the idea of large deployable mirrors in space, allowing high-fidelity imagery from a small satellite platform.
Other horizons to explore include 3D printing in space, where a satellite is a mini-factory that prints the components to build a satellite or antenna, and an adjacent robotic arm does the assembly. And space traffic control that aims to improve the ability to monitor the approximately 6,000 satellites in space, ease overcrowding and make way for future satellites.
“If you only put forth ideas you know will work, you can only grow linearly,” says Campbell. “But what’s characterizing our new global technology economy is people making exponential leaps.”