Last week I returned from LAUNCH, an event co-hosted by NASA, U.S. Department of State, USAID, and NIKE, where the clear relationship between risk and reward was on full display. While touring the Jet Propulsion Lab and watching scientists work in a hermetically sealed "cleanroom," covered from head to toe in hazmat suits, and watching them work on their knees as they painstakingly hand build the next space-ready vehicle, it was hard to ignore the high-stakes game that drives innovation.
The cleanroom was filled with scientists who will spend most of their professional lives working to get one, maybe two, projects off the ground. They are charged with transporting precious cargo - human life to the Moon or a multi-billion dollar robot to Mars - and then, if successful, they are responsible for remotely monitoring and delivering ongoing life-support. Even more striking, the ultimate goal is not landing on the Moon or Mars, it is being able to tell the happy ending-- ensuring the safe return of the Astronauts back to Earth or controlling the Astrobots’ ability to communicate life on Mars, and transferring this information back to the command and control center. At NASA, a successful launch is rewarded with a profound sense of accomplishment, while failure means absolute disaster.
The careful orchestration required for a space mission, from pre-launch through final landing, is similar to a startup’s process of mapping and executing complex decision trees. A startup must set an initial vision, recruit the right team, design products or services, protect intellectual property, settle on a revenue model, position the brand, develop a sales pipeline, and finally, become profitable. Regardless of how many scenarios a startup or a space mission may plan for, there are always surprises. The LAUNCH Forum is designed to help the innovators see around blind corners, minimize risks, capitalize on opportunities, and accelerate their growth. As I listened to the innovators discuss their plans, I saw clear parallels between launching into space and launching these startups:
1. A human-centered mission. Each innovation at LAUNCH had an underlying social mission that, like sending a spaceship to outer space, prioritizes the safety and well being of humans.
2. Operating in a closed system. In order for the Astronauts to survive 6 months in a floating capsule, they have a limited number of resources to bring onboard, to manage wisely, and to dispose of safely. Each startup recognized the environment as a constrained resource and each holds promise to reduce global resource use.
3. Broad and open collaboration. In the NASA labs, information sharing and collaboration are mandatory. More than one hundred people were directly invested in the successful launch of the Mars rover Curiosity. The Forum assembled an experienced council from government, non-profit organizations, academia, and industry to help the startups benefit from cross-disciplinary knowledge.
4. Weighing benefits and costs of openness. In the original space race, secrecy was paramount. Thirty years later, nations cooperated to launch the International Space Station. Today, innovators wrestle with open platforms that offer rapid scaling, or traditional intellectual property protection systems with a clear path to paid models.
The LAUNCH platform was designed to support "world-class ideas, technologies or programs that show great promise for making tangible impacts on society." It exists to support human interests, to promote the understanding of systems, to facilitate broad and open collaboration, to help businesses find the best model for success, and ultimately to launch promising, impactful businesses on a high trajectory.
The new materials, services and systems showcased at LAUNCH are the beginning of a materials system movement that will change our world for the better.
Humanity is capable of amazing things.