Incubate to Innovate
9:38 PM on Feb 23, 2012
This article was originally published as the Leading Edge column in the Feb. 13 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Incubate to Innovate
Innovation has become a mantra for aerospace in part because the industry is worried about losing its edge. Pressure on research spending and global competition from other industries have companies concerned about where the ideas and talent will come from.
One company taking on the issue of how to stay innovative across a broad front is helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft. Its initiatives range from assembling an industry team to fund the construction of two S-97 Raider high-speed helicopter prototypes to launching an online technology challenge to attract entrepreneurs.
The company’s sales have increased four-fold in 10 years, to $7.36 billion in 2011, and its profits seven-fold to $840 million, so its ability to invest in research and development is not in doubt. That said, the company’s approach sets it apart in a rotorcraft industry that is criticized for lacking innovation while prospering from sales to the U.S. military.
Sikorsky spent $50 million of industry money, mostly its own, on the X2 Technology high-speed, coaxial-rotor demonstrator (above), which exceeded 250 kt. in September 2010. The follow-on Raider program is a much larger effort, likely several hundred million dollars, with a 35-company supplier team responsible for 25% of the tab and Sikorsky the rest.
But as the company moves from technology innovation into product development with the Raider, it continues to look for ways to bring in new technology ideas and business partners. Its latest initiative is corporate sponsorship of the Stamford Innovation Center in Connecticut, a new business incubator close to Sikorsky’s headquarters in Stratford, Conn.
The company has taken a small area within the center, which is located “close to New York, several universities and surrounded by venture-capital investment potential,” says Chris Van Buiten, vice president of Sikorsky Innovations, the company’s technology development arm. The center will be used to “incubate entrepreneurial activities of interest to Sikorsky,” he says.
To that end, the company has launched the Entrepreneurial Challenge, inviting teams to submit business plans that address five technical questions posted online and offer winners access to the innovation incubator in Stamford, where the helicopter manufacturer will provide technical and business mentoring.
The center itself will supply shared business services along with ancillary support opportunities. These include a Connecticut-run accelerator program that will make readily available exposure to successful entrepreneurs and potential investors, says Patty Meagher, the center’s founding manager. Sikorsky’s sponsorship will provide initial financial support, introductions to venture capitalists and access to state grant programs for incubating new businesses, she says. “Compare that with working in your garage or basement,” says Van Buiten.
With the goal of attracting entrepreneurial ventures which are developing “highly differentiated technology” that are aligned with Sikorsky’ needs, the company’s online challenge seeks to garner ideas on wireless sensing; adaptive signature control and active survivability; creating and distributing robust, certifiable software applications; high-power-density energy storage technologies; and avionics and sensor cooling.
Applications are due on March 30, and finalists will present their business plans to Sikorsky on April 27. These will be judged on technical feasibility, business viability and team quality, says Laurence Vigeant Langlois, director of business development and technology partnerships for Sikorsky Innovations.
Winners will receive a year’s free access for 2-4 people to the Stamford Innovation Center, where the helicopter manufacturer’s structured education program will provide the teams with technical and business-strategy guidance to “help align their technology to Sikorsky challenges,” says Van Buiten.
At the end of the year, the ventures will be assessed to see if they are ready to move to the next level of investment, he says. “We are looking at incubating companies with technology relevant to Sikorsky, but with broader application.” Sikorsky Innovations has already invested in several small companies that are now providing technologies for the Raider and other R&D programs, such as the optionally piloted Black Hawk.
While companies like Intel, as well as others in consumer goods and energy industries, run corporate venture capital programs, “there are not a lot in aerospace,” says Langlois. With the Entrepeneurial Challenge and innovation-center sponsorship, “we are trying something new,” she says. “Will it work? Ask us in a year or two,” says Van Buiten.