Natick bootstrap initiative pulls up great ideas

The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Bootstrap Initiative provides employees the chance to propose innovative ideas, with employees also given the chance to vote on which ideas proposed by their colleagues will receive funding. Alfredo Lujan (pictured here) -- a clothing designer on NSRDEC's Design Pattern and Prototype Team, presented his proposal, "We are not squares" at NSRDEC's Bootstrap Pitch Day. Lujan's idea promotes the benefits of using Kinetic Garment Construction, or KGC, to design military clothing. | U.S. Army photo by David Kamm, NSRDEC

NATICK, Mass. — Through the Bootstrap Initiative and Pitch Day, the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, has come up with an ingenious way to encourage out-of-the-box thinking, promote risk-taking and enable employee participation.

NSRDEC’s Dr. Ken Desabrais, a research aerospace engineer, conceived the Bootstrap Initiative, implemented to encourage innovation and creativity while streamlining processes and minimizing bureaucracy. Through the program, government civilian NSRDEC employees are allowed to submit proposals for a new technology, research project, business process or administrative process that supports NSRDEC’s science and technology, or S&T, mission, including researching and developing cutting-edge food, shelter, clothing and airdrop technologies and products.

“The Bootstrap Initiative was conceived of as a way to bring the crowdsourcing concept to NSRDEC to find innovative and creative ways within our organization to solve a spectrum of problems, from technical challenges to improvements in our business and administrative processes and tools,” said Desabrais. “Our intent with the initiative was to encourage the sharing of ideas and help nurture a culture of collaboration amongst our colleagues to identify and find solutions to the problems we see in achieving our mission of helping the Soldier, while also empowering people to pursue and make decisions about those ideas.”

“Bootstrap is an engaging way for people throughout the organization to get to know each other better, which leads to more productive collaborations,” said Dr. Charlene Mello, NSRDEC’s chief scientist.

This year’s proposals ranged from the development of cut-and puncture-resistant material to an extreme weather fabric test apparatus to nonstick dishes that can be cleaned without water — to name a few innovative proposals.

Frank Murphy’s Bootstrap 2017 proposal was for an ultrasonic device for advanced composite construction. Murphy is a mechanical engineer on NSRDEC’s Tactical Shelters Team, which is currently developing shelters that utilize resin composite materials in either hybrid or full composite construction systems.

“The ultrasonic test equipment provides a portable, robust, reliable and accurate means of flaw detection in composite construction geometries and can also identify failure modes within the composite that are not readily apparent to visual inspection,” said Murphy.

Murphy noted the importance of the Bootstrap Initiative.

“We find that the Bootstrap program can help foster solutions to technology challenges that are uncovered as we adopt new material solutions to address the evolving demands of the Warfighter,” said Murphy.

For the Warfighter

Alfredo Lujan is a clothing designer on NSRDEC’s Design Pattern and Prototype team. His proposal, “We are not squares,” discusses the benefits of using Kinetic Garment Construction, or KGC, to design military clothing. KGC moves away from more traditional pattern making that assumes a static upright body toward patterns that provide greater range of motion and wrap ergonomically around the body and follow the body’s movements.

“Bootstrap encourages innovation by allowing folks to develop, pitch and secure funding for ideas or equipment that may not be directly tied to a project but would be beneficial to the Warfighter and NSRDEC accomplishing their mission,” said Lujan. “It’s a quick and effective way to get an idea off the ground. As someone who is still fairly new to NSRDEC, being able to pitch was a great opportunity to network with folks from around the installation. I was able to get valuable feedback on my project and presentation. It gave me a little more insight on the needs and considerations of different departments.”

“We have some incredibly creative people in our organization who often identify innovation opportunities while at their desk, in the lab or even in the car,” added Mello. “Their inspiration comes from spending time with Soldiers, the emergence of new technological advances or their innate curiosity and desire for enhanced understanding. The Bootstrap program gives them an avenue to present these ideas, refine and improve them based upon input from their peers and quickly explore the value of said idea.”

“The ideas submitted through the Bootstrap innovation program are not typically the kind of efforts that get funded through traditional channels,” said Tom Merle, NSRDEC chief innovation officer. “These are passion-driven ideas that people have come up with, but they don’t have any financial means or recognized time to pursue them. What we’ve found is that these modest investments to build, try or learn more about an idea have often led to outcomes that impact the Soldiers even in the short term and have frequently been the catalyst to enable follow-on funding to keep advancing the idea.

“This program has served to energize and empower the S&T community by giving them an opportunity to ‘sell’ the potential of an idea, build excitement and support from their colleagues and then with enough support pursue the idea they believe will help our Soldiers and help us execute our mission more effectively.”

Encourage Innovation

NSRDEC’s Bootstrap Initiative not only gives employees the chance to propose ideas, they also have the chance to vote on which ideas receive funding. Pitch Day is a key part of this process. During Pitch Day, proposers are given the chance to garner employee voter support for their ideas by making posters, displaying prototypes, creating interactive displays and conducting show-and-tell sessions.

“I personally think this is one of the more important programs that we sponsor here,” said Deb Anderson, who oversaw the execution of Bootstrap Pitch Day. “I love the excitement and creativity it generates. In times of austere S&T budgets and future uncertainty, Bootstrap is a morale booster. Networking and camaraderie are in full effect. It’s the ‘Mighty Mouse’ effect, as far as I’m concerned — a whole lot of punch for a pretty small amount of money.”

Although Bootstrap is intended to reduce red tape and encourage innovation, there are still some submission restrictions. For instance, ideas must be able to be carried out for $50,000 or less. Funding cannot be used to fund a contractor or external contract.

The 2016 Bootstrap Initiative had several success stories including the Body Armor Firing Solution, or BAFS. The BAFS is comprised of nylon hook straps and pile connecting areas, with non-skid fabric reinforced with nylon inner fabric and rifle butt stop. BAFS prevents the rifle butt from slipping off an individual’s firing shoulder.

“The BAFS was a great success for me and my team because we were able to briefly experience the birth of a great idea, pursue that idea, generate a material solution and introduce that solution to active-duty Soldiers serving now,” said Col. Charles H. May, NSRDEC’s military deputy.

For Bootstrap 2017, 18 out of 28 proposals were chosen to receive funding. For the first time in Bootstrap history, two ideas received 100 percent of the requested funding based on voter support. These projects were NSRDEC G3/5 Operations Center, submitted by Kristen Ryan, and RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) Inventory Tracking, submitted by Patrick Benasutti and Colleen Ottomano.

It should be noted that even ideas that were not chosen still help to make the workforce aware of potential ideas for innovations in the future.

Voters also had the chance to vote on the “Best of the Best” or “People’s Choice” from Bootstrap’s 2016’s winners, with NSRDEC’s John Ramsay and Jonathan Kaplan winning first place for the highly successful Low Cost Airborne Soldier Load Assistance Device.

“There is a strong push to increase the rate of innovation in the DoD, and this program has proven to enable just that,” said Merle.

By Jane Benson, NSRDEC

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