Up to the Challenge

James Kegley

In February 2011, the South Harbor Maine-based startup Flagsuit won a contract to develop new astronaut gloves for testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. It was a big opportunity for Flagsuit founder and chief executive Peter Homer, who was managing a South Harbor community center when he first spotted a NASA prize competition online six years earlier.

The competition—to build a more flexible glove—was one of the Centennial Challenges that NASA has been offering annually since 2003 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight. 

These challenges are sometimes focused on acquiring specific technology, says Jenn Gustetic, NASA’s challenges and prizes program executive. Just as often, though, they’re a method to spur competition in an underdeveloped market or to bring in expertise from outside fields so the same old problems aren’t always tackled in the same old ways, she says. 

A survey of the roughly 7,500 people who entered a NASA competition to find a better method of predicting solar flares, for example, found 81 percent of the entrants had never competed for a traditional NASA contract, Gustetic says. The winner of that 2009 challenge wasn’t an aerospace expert but a retired radio frequency engineer from Lempster, N.H. His tool can predict solar flares 24 hours in advance with 75 percent accuracy, NASA officials say, and could significantly reduce astronauts’ exposure to damaging radiation. 

Harvard Associate Professor Karim R. Lakhani has found competitors from outside a challenge’s primary field are actually more likely to find winning solutions than those who are in it. The more distant the field the better, he says.

Homer was one of those outsiders. He’d spent the early part of his career as a mechanical engineer in General Electric’s satellite division, but engineering was far from his daily life. He thought the challenge looked like something “a guy in his garage” might be able to tackle. 

Homer worked in fits and starts on his challenge entry at first. “It was a side project I got myself involved in out of intellectual curiosity,” he says. “My goal was to make a showing so I wouldn’t feel like I embarrassed myself.”

With about three months to go, Homer got serious. He started spending most evenings and weekends working on the glove and invested a few thousand dollars from his savings. “That’s all I really had,” he says. “I got good at scrounging materials and utilizing resources like eBay.”

With six weeks to go, Homer decided his original design was beyond saving. He threw it out and started over, working faster and learning from his mistakes. The gamble paid off. In May 2007, Homer was awarded the competition’s top prize: $250,000. 

Homer founded Flagsuit that same year, partially at the urging of space industry officials who had kept an eye on the competition. In 2009, he won a second competition phase. By 2011, he had his contract with NASA, which means his gloves might one day find their way onboard the International Space Station or on missions to Mars. He also was contracting with commercial space companies and industrial firms that needed gloves with similar characteristics. 

“I’m totally here now because of that challenge and because of what happened afterwards,” he says. “I think this is a great value because the sponsoring organization gets a lot of information and good ideas and they only pay for the ones that bear fruit.”

Homer’s assessment—and his story—is what’s behind Challenge.gov, an Obama administration initiative that has hosted more than 200 competitions since its 2010 launch focused on everything from air quality to arms control to blocking illegal robo calls.

It’s often difficult to untie the final knot, though: putting technology built by challenge competitors to work. 

This is partly due to regulations that require agencies to buy goods and services through standard procurement procedures rather than by other means such as prize competitions, Gustetic says.

In some cases, NASA competitions eventually lead to a contract with a company founded by the winner, as was the case with Homer and Flagsuit. That can be a lengthy process, though, and requires a lot of post-award work by the winner. 

Homer has nothing but praise for NASA’s challenge team but says there was little initial follow up from the agency’s spacesuit designers. “That changed, but it didn’t happen overnight, and it took a lot of relationship building,” he says.

There are shorter paths, Gustetic says, but there’s no silver bullet. 

In some cases NASA hires the organization running the competition as a prime contractor and the terms of the challenge state the winner’s work will be handed over to NASA as, essentially, the work of a subcontractor. 

In other cases, technology developed during a competition is acquired by a major NASA supplier, which incorporates the invention into its own products and sometimes hires the winner, she says.

Regardless of whether winning technology makes its way directly to NASA, everything developed during a competition helps to expand the market, according to Gustetic. 

“We’re asking folks to think about new technology or new applications of technology that folks largely aren’t working on yet,” she says. “You may have only one or two or three winners, but you could then get a potential pool of people that become a viable industry . . . We could say, ‘you guys now have solutions in this space; let’s figure out which one we want to procure.’ ”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.