NavalX Innovation Support Office Opening 5 Regional ‘Tech Bridge’ Hubs

September 3, 2019 8:03 PM - Updated: September 4, 2019 9:39 AM
James F. Geurts (left), assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition (ASN RDA), and Capt. Jon Margolick (right), U.S. Marine Corps Naval Expeditions (NavalX) liaison, announce the DoN’s plan to rapidly expand its collaboration capabilities through the creation of Tech Bridges on Sept. 3, 2019. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated to clarify that the PEO Carriers interaction with NavalX is ongoing and has not yet concluded.

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The Navy is expanding its NavalX innovation support office, setting up five regional hubs across the country that will bring military, industry and academia together to help solve nagging problems for the service.

Navy acquisition chief James Geurts announced the creation of NavalX – or Naval Expeditions Agility Office – in February, and already the organization has stood up its office in a shared space in a former warehouse district in Alexandria, gotten a few early wins under its belt and laid the groundwork for the five Tech Bridges that were announced today.

Whereas other innovation efforts, such as the ongoing Advanced Naval Technology Exercise series, seek to give the Navy a thing to field – a new drone, a new communication tool, a new tablet – NavalX seeks to create better processes and ways of sharing information, so that all fleet units, acquisition offices, warfare centers and others can innovate and evolve faster and easier.

NavalX Deputy Director David Schiff likened the process to someone in the Navy talking to a friend in another field about their work problems – the friend, unbiased by Navy culture, dated best practices and rank structure, might see a path to a solution that the Navy employee couldn’t.

He noted that the Program Executive Office for Aircraft Carriers is anticipating a successful NavalX interaction, with small business participants helping solve a problem that more time and more money so far hadn’t cracked. In exchange for helping the Navy with its problems, Schiff added, the participants were able to highlight challenges they face in doing business with the Navy – be it a particular form, or an accounting requirement, or other barrier – for the Navy to figure out how to address.

When Geurts kicked off NavalX, he said that, in comparison to other innovation organizations the military already runs, “I don’t want [NavalX] to have any of the brilliant ideas, I want them to be able to take all the brilliant ideas that are sitting in this room and be able to push them forward efficiently. … I call [the NavalX staff] sherpas: their job is to help you on your journey, their job’s not to tell you how to do your journey.”

Today, Geurts said these first five Tech Bridges would represent the next phase of NavalX’s work, “creating a gathering spot, kind of a combustion chamber for innovation, idea, thought” in places around the country where innovation of this kind is already happening: Crane, Ind.; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego, Calif.; Keyport, Wash.; and Newport, R.I.

Geurts described these Tech Bridges as NavalX franchises, with each one having its own distinct flavor, focus areas and ways of operating based on the relationships and research already in place in these Navy towns. But they would all be “powered by NavalX” and have access to tools and resources to help solve problems.

The Crane and Orlando Tech Bridges are officially stood up, Geurts said. Crane is the hometown of the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Crane Division that focuses on electronic warfare, strategic missions and expeditionary warfare, and Orlando is home to Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division that supports all aviation, surface and subsurface training systems.

The other three will be formally stood up in the coming months. Keyport and Newport are home to the two Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) divisions, with Newport also being home to the Naval War College and more. San Diego is home to a wide range of Navy and Marine Corps commands covering all warfighting domains.

The focus areas for all the Tech Bridges are still being honed but will reflect the current innovation taking place there and the current relationships the Navy and Marines have built with local tech companies, state and local governments, K-12 schools, colleges and universities and more.

The original NavalX office in Alexandria will remain focused on more institution-wide problems – how to get the Slack messaging app approved for “for official use only” level conversations within the Navy, or training offices in new workflow management models, for example.

This office – with about three uniformed officers and eight civilians with backgrounds working at systems commands, warfare centers, labs and more – since the NavalX launch earlier this year was able to set up the Center for Adaptive Warfighting at Camp Johnson, N.C. The effort included the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, II Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group and Marine Corps Combat Service Support Schools, who all had an interest in “better, faster, more agile ways to accomplish a mission,” Marine Capt. Jon Margolick, a Marine judge advocate general who now works on the NavalX staff, said at today’s press event.

The group found Marines who were already experts in the Scrum workflow model, adapted an existing human-centered design curriculum to be a warfighter-centered design curriculum, and started teaching Marines. The curriculum is open to all, and Margolick said Naval Air Systems Command and others have expressed an interest in using this new tool to improve workflow in their organizations.

“Our job here is not to manufacture complete answers for everybody; our job is to figure out what seeds, when planted, answer questions that are native to the places where they’re going to bloom. And as we identify tools like that one which can be deployed on a modular basis around the country, we’re finding we’re getting a pretty positive response and that it’s actually generating measurable answers in each of those places,” Margolick said.

The captain added that NavalX is working with groups as high up as the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s office and as ground-level as the budding Naval Junior Officers Council and the Entrepreneurial Club at the U.S. Naval Academy.

“A lot of people are trying to figure out how do we do new things, how do we do it faster and how do we help somebody, and it just takes a little nudge and a little support from above to help something take root there,” he said.

Asked what success for the new Tech Bridges would look like, Geurts said it would be applying all regional assets to help solve problems within that hub’s focus area. That includes taking advantage of young minds through internship programs, shaping young minds by working with STEM programs to ensure students are taught the right fields to help address future Navy challenges, sharing the Navy’s challenges and capability gaps with local university researchers and private companies to help solve, and listening to academia’s and industry’s challenges to working with the Navy and helping knock down those barriers.

“Success for us is then when [the Office of Naval Research] can leverage that platform to get access to new ideas and technologies and companies they may not have seen before; when the Small Business folks can meet new companies and give them rapid training on how to compete for Navy work; … when young talent, whether it’s in high school or in colleges, can come to a place and learn about what the Navy and Marine Corps need and how we operate; when cutting-edge scientists can walk in with an idea or hear about a problem and go back to their academic institutions and propose research projects which leverage all those different elements. And then when sailors and Marines have a place they can walk into to either find an answer or find somebody that can get them the answer – or have an idea and then get that idea to somebody who can act,” Geurts said.

After a recent NavalX meeting with about 80 members from across the enterprise, Geurts said the participants’ main reactions were, “I never knew ONR had a fabulous program like that. I never knew we could have our own interns here. I never knew this STEM program existed. I never knew we could partner with an academic institution in this way. And so that’s where I start to get pretty excited. That three-day session here in a kind of neutral terrain with nobody’s org chart on the outside can be very, and I’d say was, transformative for us.”

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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