March 04, 2013
Credit: Pankl Aerospace
Graham Warwick Washington
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.