A Culture of Innovation
APL was built on a foundation of innovative and creative thinking and the ability to translate those ideas into effective technical solutions. Over the past several years, we have focused on enhancing the Laboratory’s culture of innovation through a series of coordinated, enterprise-level initiatives. Today, these “innovation experiments” have increased collaboration, resulted in more numerous inventions and disclosures, and provided sponsors with new and exciting potential avenues of exploration for their programs.
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.
Tech Splash Videos
To help share expertise, accomplishments, and capabilities across the organization, we developed a video series called Tech Splash in 2013. These short, sometimes edgy videos highlight information and ideas that might be useful in multiple domains across the Laboratory. Edited and produced in-house, the three- to five-minute videos are viewed on our intranet, and some are shared externally on the APL YouTube channel. Late last year, a video released through Tech Splash featured Les Baugh, a double amputee who operated—for the first time in history—two neurologically controlled APL-built prosthetic arms.
Our new innovation center, called Central Spark, was created from an Ignition Grant proposal. It opened in April 2014 and has become one of the most popular centers of collaboration and creativity at APL. Conceived, designed, and managed by staff members, Central Spark consists of four anchor spaces. First is Design Central, a design thinking area that also includes gaming, modeling and simulation, and software app prototyping. Next is Maker Central, a maker space featuring modular electronics and 3-D printers for staff members to use to physically explore ideas and designs. Academy Central provides a space for teaching about topics of interest. Finally, Media Central allows staff members to make videos to increase and enhance sharing of technical knowledge. In the first several days after opening its doors, close to 3,000 people visited Central Spark. Sponsors and stakeholders have been very engaged by the facility and its potential, and a number of inventions and concepts developed for sponsors are the direct result of this innovation center.