James Kegley

Up to the Challenge

NASA’s Jenn Gustetic says prize competitions can draw unlikely inventors in the push to improve technology.

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.’ ”

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