“Empower is a small business within a big business.”
That is how Matt McCarthy, program manager for the Electronic Solutions Sector’s (ES) Empower Innovation team, describes the very unique branch of BAE Systems where he works. Housed in a spacious and warmly lit section of the company’s Hudson, New Hampshire campus, the Innovation Center – as it’s called – has almost a showroom feel, with designs under review lining one table and rows of patent plaques covering an adjacent wall. But no one here is resting on their laurels.
“There is so much room to grow,” McCarthy says.
The Empower Innovation program is a cross-sector platform for gathering, exploring, and maturing promising ideas from some of the company’s most creative employees who consistently develop new ways to improve work flow and have new technology insights.
“Empower Innovation is akin to a venture capitalist organization where any ES employee with strategic or compelling ideas can win seed funding,” said John Kelly, who guides the development of the program. “We coach them, help them define exploratory research and development milestones, and pair them with mentors in the business areas to determine if their concepts can help our business grow.”
How It Works
The Empower team uses an online idea management platform that allows any of ES’ 14,000-plus employees, regardless of role or location to submit their ideas. The Empower team also solicits innovative ideas via “Strategic Idea Campaigns,” asking employees for their insights about strategic interest or challenge areas defined by the business areas. The collected ideas are reviewed by domain experts- and the best go on to compete for funding.
“This model ensures that the Empower team is always aligned with the aspirations of our product lines,” says Kelly.
“On the user side, it’s an outlet for employees to submit creative ideas that they think will bring value to the business,” said McCarthy. “And for the business, it’s a platform to incubate early concepts and technologies to the point where the utility or value is well understood.”
So far, the program has been a huge success. Each year, Empower runs approximately 10 competitions and reviews more than 400 employee ideas. And despite the more than 75 percent increase in submitted ideas over the last 24 months—each idea is personally reviewed by the team.
“It gets evaluated by the proper subject matter experts; it’s contemplated, spun, developed, matured, and then it’s funded, if it’s a good idea,” said McCarthy. When it comes to advancing an innovation, the team runs the projects like a lean startup- being very selective, and invests just enough to determine if there is “proof of life.”
“Empower’s goal is to develop an innovation just to the point where a business area or function can pick up the funding- not develop a product. Our role is to remove the need for imagination. We strive for a 50 percent+ transition rate into the business areas,” adds Kelly.
Recent investment areas include specialized acoustic underwater navigation and communication, additive manufacturing or 3D printing of flexible electronics and scan mirrors, ultra-low noise oscillators, advanced signal detection and geolocation algorithms, quantum encryption, and metamaterials.
One recent example of the team’s success is their exploration of digital manufacturing technology, in partnership with the Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Systems business area, and an MIT startup called Tulip. The project leverages Internet of Things (IoT) connected sensing and control devices, integrated tools and measuring devices, machine vision, and a dynamic “projected desktop” to guide Operations’ assembly and test procedures in the factory. The objective is to detect and eliminate defects as they occur. In early 2019, a new multi-focus experiment will occur with our Operations team in Greenlawn, N.Y.
The Empower team holds an annual expo that is well attended every spring- where employees present and demonstrate their inventions to the ES community.
McCarthy says the work out of Empower Innovation has been gratifying for the entire team.
“The program is unique, because – while it may happen in the commercial world a bit more – this model doesn’t typically exist in the defense industry.”
And Kelly says he’s driven by his team’s eagerness to lend support. “At the end of the day our customers come to us for our insights and for the purposeful way we help them solve their greatest challenges. Through the aligned efforts across the Empower program, we have a considerable capacity for delivering meaningful innovation to our customers. This is something of which we should all be proud.”
Shelley Walcott, Communications, Hudson, New Hampshire