As budgets are cut and margins squeezed, and business becomes more competitive, industry is turning to challenges to seek diverse views on difficult problems. And the prize, for the companies, can be ideas, talent or visibility in key markets.
“Diversity of thought is key to innovation,” says Ray Johnson, Lockheed Martin senior vice president and chief technology officer. “The more different views you get on a problem, the more you can facilitate a culture of innovation.”
Increasingly, industry is using prize competitions to find ideas for innovations, and targets for investment. Lockheed ran an innovation challenge late last year, both globally and internally; Northrop Grumman stages a competition for students in the United Arab Emirates; Raytheon runs an annual internal competition, and Sikorsky has launched an online challenge to identify potential entrepreneurial partners.
“When Sikorsky Innovations was founded three years ago, we sought to reach outside the organization for partnerships, to other organizations investing in R&D and to young ventures doing cutting-edge work on a different growth curve,” says Laurence Vigeant-Langlois, director of business development and business partnerships.
Sikorsky has made minority investments in several such entities. “But we wanted to go to an even earlier stage of development, to see if there was value in early identification and alignment with our needs,” she says. The goal was to identify and invest in entrepreneurial ventures early, to tap into ideas, talent and markets.
Why a challenge? “There is a benefit, especially with entrepreneurs as they are deadline-driven,” says Jonathan Hartman, advanced concepts engineer at Sikorsky Innovations. “An online challenge is a time-based way to reach out to them, and a unique opportunity to broadcast our needs to a wide audience.” Accustomed to business-plan competitions, “entrepreneurs understand challenges as a route to funding,” he says.
Targeted at entities with revenues less than $5 million, the Entrepreneurial Challenge offers a year of incubation support, technical and business mentoring and an investment evaluation as the prize. The first round was launched in February 2012 with five questions seeking ideas in wireless sensing, signature control, software, energy storage and avionics cooling.
The first winner was Pankl Aerospace Innovations, a California-based company set up by Austrian automotive and aerospace manufacturer Pankl Racing Systems. Pankl’s solution addressed the second challenge—adaptive signature control and active survivability—by proposing a set of technologies packaged into a concept rotorcraft called Hero. “It was the complementary transformational technologies, not the product, that drew us,” Vigeant-Langlois says.
These include a lightweight, stretchable skin made of a fiber-reinforced, polyurethane-coated Lycra fabric, used by BMW in its Gina concept car. An alligator-inspired “wagging” tail allows faster turns, says Pankl Aerospace Systems CEO Sonya Zierhut. The skin is covered with thin-film bendable displays for active camouflage and carbon-nanotube loudspeakers for active noise cancellation.
Sikorsky decided two other contestants also were worthy of incubation support: Ottawa-based Smart Rotor Systems, with a new pitch-link control technology; and inventor Drew Lambert, with a mobile network weather information concept.
“We are halfway through the incubation period with the winner and the others,” says Vigeant-Langlois. At the end of the year-long prize period, the ventures will be assessed by Sikorsky to see if they are ready to move to the next level of investment. “We expect not all will lead to a formal relationship downstream,” she says.
Sikorsky believes the venture has been valuable to both sides. “The winner has used the visibility to leverage interest with the investment community and others,” says Hartman.
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