Athena Project 7



ENS Tom Baker, First Lieutenant, USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) **


The Athena Project is an initiative, founded in the Surface Community, focused on harnessing deckplate innovations to create a cadre of forward-thinking, creatively confident Sailors for the Fleet of tomorrow. The Athena Project creates a platform for Sailors to pitch innovative ideas to improve their command or the Navy in an open forum to fellow Sailors as well as leaders of industry, academia and government.

Under the Athena construct, Sailors are given a day off their traditional duties to focus on the development of their big idea. In exchange for the idea development time, they must present their concept without the use of powerpoint in a five-minute pitch in a casual environment, followed by a five-minute question and answer session from the crowd. What follows is peer voting on the pitches based on three metrics: idea quality, actionability and presentation. The winning idea receives the “Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage” and command backing for a small functional team to make their idea happen leveraging the Athena Network, as well as the scientists, engineers and designers in attendance.

This is not a novel concept: businesses out there are doing things like this and gaining some positive results — fixes to bugs in programs, new products for increased revenue, etc. What Athena aims to do is harness that spirit from Corporate America and bring it to the Navy. There is absolutely too much intellectual capital in our Navy that remains dormant. This is the way to go active!

Founded aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) in early 2013, The Athena Project has hosted seven events for the San Diego Waterfront and subsequently expanded to the Norfolk Waterfront with an event in September 2014 and the Pacific Northwest, with an event in November, 2014. Many Athena Project concepts have been prototyped by the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies, SPAWAR and Lockheed Martin among others, while other initiatives have secured funding through ONR Tech Solutions and the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell on their way to fleet implementation.

By employing the Athena framework, the Navy can harvest ideas directly from the warfighters that deal with challenges first-hand. Through operational experience, Sailors generate unique solutions to complex problems. Further, presenting these concepts in an accessible forum builds Sailors’ intellectual courage and inspires future ideation. Since the first Athena event, winning concepts have ranged from creative solutions to synthesize ships’ onboard optical sensors for contact recognition through algorithms to prototyped concepts that solve simple Damage Control problems for desmoking shipboard spaces. The condensed idea pitching timeline distills idea to their core, eliminating the extraneous and focusing on the purity of concept.

The best thing, though, was that the Sailors LOVED it and they actually had FUN doing it.

Sailors tend to have a lot to gripe about in the way we do things — either as a ship, community or Navy — and this is a great chance to “scratch the itch” and try to make things better. There are a lot of great ideas out there and as long as your command is willing to invest a little time to extract them, great things can happen.

The environment is casual and open, and sometimes takes the feeling of Shark Tank-meets-TED Talks, focused on building the creative confidence of the Fleet’s leaders of tomorrow. The vision of the project has always been to build a generation of Sailors that think differently, solve problems in unique ways and have the intellectual courage to stand up and do something about it.

Beyond the quarterly Waterfront pitch events, The Athena Project hosts a variety of innovative experiences. In partnership with SPAWAR SSC PAC, we host “Learn Warfighter Needs Workshops” dubbed athenaTHINK, including a design thinking workshop to encourage collaboration between Sailors and Scientists and teach structured brainstorming tools. In addition athenaSPEARS are targeted design thinking events focused on solving a specific problem and providing a stream of courses of action to decision makers.




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** = The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.