Breaking Through Silos: Innovation Through Collaboration
Note: This article is based on a presentation delivered by Murali Krishnan, Vice President and General Manager of ISR at Harris, during the American Chemical Society NASA Symposium in April 2019.
The unified space community, along with our amazing customer NASA, and the American Chemistry Society, have a lot in common regarding the way we can tackle some of the world’s – and universe’s – great challenges.
The month of April is actually a pretty big month for space milestones. The first weather satellite, TIROS-1, launched in April 1961. Also in April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space. In 1981, the space shuttle Columbia became the first winged spaceship to orbit the Earth and land on a runway.
On this day, several centuries ago, there was another milestone, but not one tied to space. On April 2, 1513, Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon first arrived off the Florida coast and became the first European to claim the land. After sailing with Christopher Columbus on his second expedition in 1493, Ponce de Leon became a top military official on Hispaniola before exploring Puerto Rico and becoming that island’s first governor. He settled into that role until someone else decided they wanted to be governor – Columbus’ son Diego. Diego became governor and Ponce de Leon had to move on to something else. Driven by exploration and innovation, Ponce de Leon returned to sailing the seas and exploring new lands, eventually discovering Florida.
Some of you may be wondering what Ponce de Leon has to do with our topic today. As history has shown us, exploration and discovery is in our DNA as human beings. We constantly strive to explore and discover the unknown. One of the great drivers of discovery is innovation. Faster ships, lighter materials, greater protection from the environment – innovation has helped us discover great things.
And what fuels innovation? Collaboration. Breaking down silos also breaks down limitations. Working across boundaries helps everyone achieve more. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships. Collaboration fuels the innovation that allows us to do things differently and think outside of the proverbial box to enable discovery.
One example that comes to mind is the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is widely known that Watson and Crick worked together to uncover the famous double-helix. What is less widely known is that they built upon discoveries made by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins and Franklin used x-rays to study DNA structure and shared their work with Watson and Crick. In fact, Wilkins shared the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick. Unfortunately, Rosalind Franklin passed away prior to receiving the 1962 award, so she was unable to see the fruits of her collaboration.
It is usually easier for people to think about collaboration in science and research, because the goal is discovery. In business, most people think it is much harder because there is a sense of having to guard intellectual property, protect profit, and maybe capitalize on first mover advantage. To some extent that it true, but there is also tremendous benefit from collaboration in business as well.
There are several examples in business as well, but I will only speak about my company, Harris Corporation. Harris has collaboration at is core – brothers Charles and Alfred Harris together invented an automated printing press feeder that led to the creation of the company in 1895. Two gentlemen named Homer Denius and George Shaw took their knowledge of telemetry and started a company called Radiation Inc. on the Space Coast in 1950. It would become part of Harris and provide the foundation for our electronics and space business areas, which have done some amazing things over the years.
It is truly my privilege to work at this great company they built, and in my role one of my priorities has been to break down silos and find ways that we can help one another out in our daily work. As Vice President and General Manager of Harris’ Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) business, I have seen how our intelligence community (IC) customers have typically been very stovepiped from Department of Defense (DoD) customers, both of which have previously been completely separate from commercial customers. Those once-solid lines are now starting to blur.
Capabilities used by the IC to surveil our enemies is also being used to protect our warfighters by providing them time-critical information and imagery. Those same capabilities are also helping commercial customers measure changes in the carbon footprint of our planet and provide pictures from space to anyone that wants it. By turning the observation away from Earth into space, we are able to unlock mysteries about undiscovered planets, other life, and the origins of our universe. Commercial launch providers have also made space-based observation much more accessible for everyone.
Collaboration among all these entities has enabled the innovation to put a satellite the size of a carry-on suitcase into space, with the ability to see things on the scale of feet and meters. Collaboration has let us take an antenna with a five-meter diameter and compress it into the volume of a coffee can, so it can fit into that suitcase-sized satellite. We are able to see orders of magnitude farther to learn more about dark energy and even find potential landing spots on the moon and beyond.
Since we are talking about chemistry, some of you may be wondering where chemistry fits into all of this. At a basic level, it is vital to the innovation we have been talking about because of the harsh demands of the space environment.
One of the basic rules of putting things into orbit and keeping them there is that you need things to be very light but very strong, with space and volume at a premium. Through chemistry, we have been able to develop materials that are very light and very strong within a much smaller form factor.
Replicated composite optics is one example. Through composite optics, we are able to produce precision down to micron tolerances for optics that weigh roughly half as much as traditional glass, cost about half as much, and take roughly half the time to build.
Through collaboration and innovation, we have developed special materials that have near zero coefficient of thermal expansion. Additive manufacturing, polymeric materials, adhesive chemistry, and coating technology have spawned new materials, better antennas, and more capable sensors that can better survive space’s harsh conditions.
When it’s appropriate, we publish what we have discovered in the spirit of collaboration and open innovation to share our success in technical conferences and forums like these. Such discoveries help the broader community. As we will soon celebrate 50 years since humans first landed on the moon, these discoveries will build a foundation for our next giant leap.
Speaking of that next giant leap, the U.S. has set a goal of putting Americans back on the moon by 2024, with future goals of sustainable exploration to the surface of the moon and beyond. It is truly the dawn of a new great space age. I am proud to be part of a company that cultivates a fertile environment for collaboration and innovation.
Just as Ponce de Leon became the intrepid explorer, breaking down silos and applying innovation will be the key to this new great age of discovery.