“Digitization has also changed the nature of design work with ability to easily collaborate with people all around the world.”

Steve Rader, deputy manager at NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI)

Open Innovation: How to leverage the power of the crowd

Innoboard: Digitization. Different industries and companies perceive it and react differently. In your position as Deputy Manager for the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation at NASA, how do you evaluate the impact of digitization on the space industry?

Steve Rader: Digitization has had a significant effect on the space industry in some interesting ways. In the area of big data, we are starting to be able to do more and more with algorithms and machine learning, but also using crowd-scientists to help process scientific observation data and help make discoveries. Digitization has also changed the nature of design work with ability to easily collaborate with people all around the world.


In what way do you rely on open innovation and external partnerships for innovation? How do you integrate these activities with your internal innovation efforts at NASA?

Our group, NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI), is working to make open innovation part of “how NASA works” by training and enabling projects from around NASA to easily use crowd-based challenges to solve problems and even produce products. Our NASA Open Innovation Services (NOIS) contract enables projects to access 10 different crowdsourcing communities including Topcoder, Innocentive, Kaggle, NineSigma, OpenIDEO, The Common Pool, Tongal, Luminary Labs, Patexia, and HeroX).  Additionally, we’ve been using Yet2, Freelancer.com, and GrabCAD to help projects.  While the NASA workforce is already well known for its innovation, we also post challenges to our internal workforce using a program named “NASA@work.” This program is often a precursor to external challenges and provides an excellent means of enterprise knowledge sharing across a large and sometimes stovepiped organization.


SpaceX is the first privately funded company that successfully launched, orbited, and recovered a spacecraft. What does this mean for the entire industry? Do you think other companies will follow despite big entrance barriers?

We are excited about all of the commercial space industry’s efforts and successes. With private companies providing transportation services to low earth orbit at lower and lower cost, NASA is able to commit more of its limited resources to science and space exploration beyond low earth orbit that is not yet commercially viable. While SpaceX has had lots of visible successes recently, NASA is also working with other commercial providers such as Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, Orbital, and Boeing. The success of these companies only helps to push our space exploration efforts further.


You already work for many years at NASA. In your opinion, what are the main differences compared to other companies in terms of work environment, approaches and mindset?

NASA is a really great place to work.  NASA’s civil servants and contractors are some of the smartest and most dedicated, passionate people that I’ve ever met. Everyone is constantly working to improve and innovate so we can do things like put people on Mars. However, we are a government institution which means that our budget and programs are controlled and directed by administrations and congress that change every few years. This can sometimes pose challenges for large, multi-year programs and sometimes makes it difficult to make progress. But the NASA workforce is pretty resilient and most realize that they are getting to work on programs that people all around the world support. In CoECI, we meet with and work with other companies often and compare notes about our innovation programs and NASA is really working to lead the way on leveraging open innovation tools and techniques like crowdsourcing.


What are your goals regarding innovation for the next 12 months?

For CoECI, our goals are to engage the majority of the NASA workforce with our open innovation toolkit so that every NASA project and group can leverage the power of the crowd.  CoECI has helped NASA projects (and other federal agencies) to run over 260 crowd-based challenges so far and has demonstrated some significant results. With 10 NASA centers and a combined civil servant/contractor workforce of almost 60,000 people, it takes a significant effort just to educate people about this new approach. The other dimension to that goal is for NASA to run more significant challenges that really help us move forward on our ultimate space exploration goals.



About Steve Rader

Steve Rader currently serves as the deputy manager for NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) and is one of 20 Challenge Mentors for U.S. Government Services Administration’s (GSA) Prizes and Challenges government-wide community of practice. Steve has worked with various projects and organizations to develop and/or execute over 60 different challenges and has provided consulting for NASA organizations and agencies such as DHS, NIST, and EPA. These challenges have all been executed on commercial curated communities such as NASA@work, InnoCentive, Topcoder, Yet2, NineSigma, Kaggle, Tongal, HeroX, The Common Pool, Luminary Labs, Applause, GrabCAD, and Freelancer. He speaks regularly about NASA’s work in crowd-based challenges both publically (like InnoCentive’s NASA Experiences Webinar or Crowdopolis XV-2015) and internally to the NASA workforce to promote the use of open innovation tools.