A Culture of Innovation

APL was built on a foundation of innovation and creative thinking and the ability to translate ideas into effective technical solutions. The Laboratory has reinvigorated its commitment to creating a culture of innovation through a series of coordinated, enterprise-level initiatives. This year, APL challenged its staff members to look toward the next decade and beyond, while building on programs to promote staff member collaboration and grow the number of inventions, disclosures, and opportunities for sponsors.

Project Catalyst

In 2015, the Lab launched a major initiative to increase investments in high-risk, transformational ideas and technologies. The initiative—Project Catalyst—builds on the success of the Lab’s Ignition Grants program and allows staff members to compete for significant funding to advance ideas that could impact the future work of the Laboratory. When the program is fully implemented, it will invest an additional $5.5 million per year in game-changing technologies and innovations.

Project Catalyst is an integral part of APL’s new, long-range strategy, which articulates the Lab’s core purpose and values, and establishes the strategic goal for APL to create defining innovations that ensure our nation’s preeminence in the 21st century.

Ignition Grants—a successful program introduced in 2011 that provides seed funding for new ideas—are now a part of Project Catalyst. The ideas are improved and voted on through APL internal, online crowdsourcing. In 2015, 16 ideas were selected for funding from three different challenge areas—mobile applications, intelligent systems, and health care. More than 4,000 staff members have participated in Ignition Grants by submitting, collaborating on, or voting on ideas. Since its inception, the Ignition Grants program has greatly increased the Lab’s number of invention disclosures and that number is expected to continue growing with the start of Project Catalyst. Project Catalyst builds on the success of the Ignition Grants program by adding two new levels of funding to address larger, more complex challenges. Combustion Grants provide the next-higher level of funding to allow staff members to explore novel ideas throughout the year. Propulsion Grants, which are the highest-level grants, provide significant, multiyear funding to breakthrough technologies and concepts that address specific challenges.

Ignition Grants

The first of our current generation of innovation initiatives—Ignition Grants—is a grassroots, online initiative. Any staff member can submit one or more new ideas and then improve the ideas via crowdsourcing. Staff members then vote online for the ideas they think should receive grants. These grants provide seed funding for a staff member or small team to work on an idea or produce a proposal, analysis, or early laboratory prototype. To date, Ignition Grants have attracted nearly 4,000 participants who proposed, discussed, and voted on more than 750 ideas.

Although the original Ignition Grants cycle was open for any ideas, subsequent cycles have added a “wicked problem” engineering challenge category, sometimes to address a critical real-world sponsor challenge. For more sensitive challenges, Ignition Grants voting narrows the entries to a set of semifinalists, and final selections occur during an hour-long “Spark Tank” session. During the session, a panel of experts provides insights and answers audience questions, and then the audience votes on the winners.

In the first year of Ignition Grants, the annual number of APL invention disclosures increased 80 percent, and that level has remained steady to this day. Johns Hopkins University recently announced a university-wide program called Idea Lab, patterned directly after Ignition Grants.

Central Spark

APL’s innovation center—Central Spark—celebrated its first anniversary in 2015 with a week of events and hands-on activities that engaged staff members and showcased opportunities for collaboration. Central Spark was created from an Ignition Grant proposal and now includes six physical spaces on campus where staff members can meet, work on designs and ideas, build prototypes, create videos, and more. This year, more than 3,000 people made use of the tools and resources in Central Spark. Sponsors and stakeholders continue to be extremely engaged by this facility and its potential, and a number of inventions and concepts developed for sponsors resulted directly from Central Spark.

Tech Splash

To help share expertise, accomplishments, and capabilities across the organization, the Lab developed a video series called Tech Splash in 2013. These short, creative videos highlight information and ideas that may be useful in multiple domains across the Laboratory. Edited and produced in house, the videos are viewable on APL’s intranet, and some are shared externally on the APL YouTube channel. In 2015, videos about the NASA New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.