Active Collaboration Improves Research Results at MITRE's Idea Market

October 2010
Topics: Technological Innovations, Collaborative Decision Making, Collaborative Computing
At MITRE's virtual Idea Market, researchers in our Innovation Program "shop" proposals to their colleagues using social networking tools.
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Although MITRE Chief Technology Officer Steve Huffman works only a mile from the luxurious retailers at Northern Virginia's Tysons Galleria, he prefers to shop online—at MITRE's Idea Market, where he enjoys browsing through hundreds of research proposals.

The Idea Market allows Huffman and the rest of the company's innovation leadership team to find research projects that are based on the future technology needs of our sponsors. And Huffman and the innovation leadership team aren't the only ones browsing; this year, hundreds of MITRE staff visited the Idea Market and collaborated with colleagues on their research proposals. The results were impressive: 158—86 new and 72 continuing research projects in a variety of areas from the Next-Gen Air Transportation System to biosecurity and emergency response.

"That kind of collaboration is part of the point of the new Innovation Program," Huffman says. "We want it to be a forum for review and comment from the entire MITRE community, not just those who are directly participating." MITRE's Innovation Program is the name given to the company's internal research and development program.

Lanes in the Road

The Idea Market is organized around challenge areas created to highlight MITRE's research priorities. "In the past, we've opened up the proposal competition and had people submit ideas that spanned the research terrain," says Greg Crawford, executive director of the Battle Management division in our Department of Defense federally funded research and development center.

"The purpose of establishing challenge areas was to create key 'lanes in the road' that are extremely valuable either to MITRE or to our government customers, and then drill down until we've mined the best thinking MITRE has in each area," Crawford says. "Those ideas could then be transitioned to customers, and new challenge areas would be created to replace the old ones."

The challenge areas provide a framework for the Idea Market, and its social networking format provides an environment for collaboration. "Concepts like the Idea Market help improve feedback and encourage further collaboration," says Glen Nakamoto, head of the Advanced Network Technology department, which is also within our DoD FFRDC.

"I also like the approach of 'building up' the proposal process. It's less effort for researchers to get an idea out there for comment and feedback, and that's a great way to help staff develop their ideas once they show some promise."

"A Very Specific Idea"

Nakamoto's proposal ("Identity Based Network Addressing") was lauded by Huffman as an example of "a very fully formed proposal with a very specific idea." The project, which defines a new network architecture to enable better security, was an outgrowth of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency study involving experts from across the security industry.

"There's a significant step from a potentially interesting technical solution to a viable implementation that can truly deliver," Nakamoto says. "That's the main reason I felt this work qualified as an internal research and development project. A collaboration effort to thoroughly flush out issues, define development activities, and test out one's hypothesis really helps develop the technical approach toward achieving one's goals."

Yaakov Weinstein, a lead systems engineer, benefited from this type of collaboration. The technology outlined in his proposal ("NMR Techniques for Enhanced, Real-Time Battlefield IED Detection") will make use of correlated nuclear-spin systems in magnetometric sensors for faster, more accurate detection of improvised explosive devices. After submitting the proposal, Weinstein received comments via the Idea Market from co-investment area leads Crawford and Aaron Blow.

Later, Weinstein participated in several "elevator pitches"—brief meetings with one or more of the Innovation Program leadership team to discuss the project and answer questions that might help refine it. The feedback resulted in "a lot of knowledge of what was most important to helping customers and getting this technology to the warfighter," Weinstein says. "For example, I was asked to give more concrete numbers on how much detection could be improved.

We can give this information to our customers and say, 'Here's what you can gain from this topic.'"

Non-Stakeholder Support

Huffman is especially pleased by the support from "non-stakeholders" who offered advice and commentary to those who submitted proposals. This year, nearly 200 non-participants offered their thoughts to the Idea Market. "We really appreciated that those employees shared their time and talent with others," Huffman says.

Spurge Norman, who heads the company's Colorado Springs site, was one of the most active among those who commented in the 2010 proposal submission phase, giving input and feedback on the projects of others—and, in some cases, helping related researchers make connections and add more customer relevance to their work. His participation proved especially beneficial for Don McGarry, a senior sensors systems engineer. McGarry's project ("IC. net") focuses on researching new data standards for interoperability among first responder and disaster management systems for DHS. The project was funded in last year's competition and continues into this year. In both cases, McGarry found Norman's comments invaluable.

"[Norman] commented on my proposal last year, and input from him and others led me to seek out MITRE people who had expertise in the first responder domain," he says. "This year, he directed others to my proposal to learn more about these standards and see if collaboration on a sub-project was possible. The whole experience gave me a broad view of who I could tap as a resource, as well as serving as a resource for others."

For his part, Norman takes a philosophical approach to the MIP. "It's like the lottery," he says. "You can't win, if you don't play."

—by Tricia C. Bailey

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