By Thomas McMahon, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division Public Affairs
From embedding in a British startup focused on sustainable agriculture to collaborating with creative thinkers from the U.K. military, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division’s (NSWC PHD) Alan Jaeger is experiencing new approaches to innovation during an immersive educational program in London.
Jaeger, director of the Ventura Tech Bridge at Fathomwerx Lab, is one of three U.S. Navy representatives taking part in the U.K.’s 2022 Percy Hobart Fellowship, named after a British military engineer whose modified tanks played a major role in the D-Day Normandy invasion during World War II.
The fellowship brings together a diverse cohort from the defense sector for three months of learning about startup culture, business principles and technological transformations, with the end goal of helping the fellows develop innovative solutions for their own commands.
Along with 40 personnel from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, Jaeger joins two other U.S. Navy-selected delegates in this year’s Percy Hobart Fellowship: Kevin Gross, director of the Threat/Target Systems Department at Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in Point Mugu, and Dr. Jamie Lukos, a scientist with the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific in San Diego. The U.S. Navy covers travel expenses for the American fellows.
Jaeger said that when he learned about the fellowship last year, he saw a link to his work at NSWC PHD—particularly that of bridging the gap between the public and private sectors through the Ventura Tech Bridge. In fact, the fellowship operates out of the London Tech Bridge.
“It’s a great opportunity to see how our partners over here in the U.K. are engaging with small startups to accelerate and deliver new capabilities,” Jaeger said in an interview from London. “I’m looking at their best practices and organizational structures, and getting a perspective that I can bring back to help our command.”
To that end, one of the key facets of the program is a startup placement, where fellows get a firsthand look at how entrepreneurs develop new technologies and drive change in the marketplace.
Two days a week, Jaeger has been reporting to work at a London-based data analytics firm called Hummingbird Technologies. The company uses satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to analyze agricultural land and farming practices, with a focus on boosting sustainability and capturing more carbon out of the air. While that may seem a far cry from naval warfare, Jaeger said that he’s learning from the small firm’s dynamic approach to innovation.
“The business doesn’t have anything to do with our mission per se, but the value is in seeing how they’re using cutting-edge science and reacting quickly to external factors,” he said. “These are all great concepts and skills for us to incorporate at our command.”
Percy Hobart Fellowship participants also engage in weekly workshops, mentoring and lectures led by a faculty of performance coaches, entrepreneurs and “intrapreneurs.” The latter term refers to leaders who drive innovation in large organizations.
For the educational sessions, fellows gather at the London Tech Bridge, which is next door to the U.K. Ministry of Defense headquarters in the storied Whitehall government complex. Jaeger initially participated in the fellowship remotely before COVID-19 travel restrictions eased in the U.K. Now that he is attending in person, Jaeger said that the networking aspect of the program is one of the biggest benefits.
“It’s a great opportunity to meet really interesting people with diverse backgrounds who have built innovation into their jobs,” he said. “They’re not all focused on technology, but they are all very innovative within their functional areas.”
The program will wrap up in late March as the fellows present their research projects to senior leaders from both the U.K. and U.S. They will also share plans on how to implement their ideas back at their own commands.
Jaeger’s research project ties in with one of NSWC PHD’s strategic goals, which is to create a culture of innovation to deliver and sustain capability to the fleet. In a nutshell, Jaeger is exploring how a large organization like the U.S. Department of Defense can learn from the dynamic approach of a small startup.
“What are the key things a startup has that we could apply to our organization? That’s the focus of my research effort,” he explained. “I’m developing the idea of building our capabilities by having the tools, processes and empowerment for our folks to be able to innovate.”
Greg DeVogel, chief technology officer for NSWC PHD, said that Jaeger’s passion for innovation made him a great fit for the Percy Hobart Fellowship.
“Alan knows the tools that are available for innovation, and he’s aware of the roadblocks and barriers that we run into,” DeVogel said. “The research project he’s working on is directly related to NSWC PHD, because he’s looking at processes by which to make a large organization like ours turn into a more innovative, nimble organization.”