Innovation Summit revolutionizes the Corps

Published Oct. 9, 2019
Updated: Oct. 10, 2019
Innovation Summit-The Atrium

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Innovation Summit attendees circulate around the exhibition booths in the atrium of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s headquarters building, September 17, 2019. Booths featured exhibits from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers divisions, Communities of Practice and ERDC entities.

Innovation Summit

At the inaugural U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Innovation Summit, the "Live with USACE Leaders" session featured, from left to right: David Ollila, president and chief innovation officer, Skypoint Ventures, and moderator of the session; Lloyd Caldwell, director of military programs, USACE; Dr. David Pittman, ERDC director and director of research and development, USACE; Dovarius Peoples, chief information officer, USACE; James Dalton, director of civil works, USACE; Ray Alexander, director for contingency operations, USACE; and Dr. Gary Blohm, director, Geospatial Research Laboratory, September 18, 2019.

VICKSBURG, Miss. ⸺ The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drew more than 500 people from approximately 170 industry and academic organizations to its inaugural Innovation Summit held at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center Headquarters, September 17-18, 2019.

Under the banner “Connect, Inspire and Revolutionize,” the event stimulated thought-provoking discussion about the future of the Corps, provided a forum for making professional connections with industry and academia and created an opportunity for showcasing Corps innovations from the past and present.

In his keynote speech, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, 54th Chief of Engineers and Commanding General, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said what was echoed by several speakers during the Summit: the Corps has a long history of innovation. He described several recent examples, including the method for strengthening Mosul Dam in Iraq.

Semonite outlined steps the organization should take to create a hospitable climate for innovation. “To continue to innovate we have to revolutionize,” he said. “We have to start by strengthening the foundation by doing everyday tasks well and leaning out processes, allowing leaders to think strategically.”

Semonite described how he had given careful thought to where the line is between revolutionizing and innovation, discussing the topic with Dr. David Pittman, ERDC director and director of research and development, USACE. “I think when we speak about revolutionizing, we’re talking about changing processes that don’t work very well anymore,” Semonite said. “Innovation affects products: evolving technologies that are out there in the market to improve the product. Those two together can be a game changer for the Corps. Culture has to be a key part of both pieces, too.”

After Semonite delivered his keynote speech, he presented awards to USACE innovators: Dr. Benjamin E. Barrowes, ERDC-Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, received the 2019 USACE Innovator of the Year award; Dr. Benjamin C. Cox, Dr. John F. Rushing and Webster C. Floyd of ERDC-Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory’s Induction Hot Mix Asphalt Team were awarded the 2019 USACE Innovation of the Year; and Dr. William F. Heard of ERDC-GSL received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

The first session of the Summit was titled “The ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’ of Innovation,” moderated by Dr. Todd Bridges, senior research scientist for environmental science for the U.S. Army. With six panelists from the Corps, academia, and private corporations such as ExxonMobil, participants addressed obstacles impeding innovation, the key challenges affecting the Corps, and how the push of science and technology research innovation can be coordinated with the pull of consumer-demanded innovation.

Representatives from a range of USACE disciplines and Communities of Practice comprised the following panels for USACE Innovations and Challenges. Dr. Julie Rosati, Civil Works Business Area Lead Technical Director, USACE, was the moderator. The panelists, which included Dr. Chandra Pathak, Senior Engineer, USACE and John Bianco, Special Assistant for Dam Safety, USACE, talked about their practice areas, current gaps and challenges where industry could play a role, and the vision for their respective areas within the Corps.

When not in session, attendees were given the option of touring the ERDC laboratories or visiting the 60 technology exhibits in the atrium representing the ERDC laboratories, Corps Divisions and Communities of Practice. “The exhibits surprised me the most,” said Summit attendee Dr. Jack Davis, deputy director of ERDC-Environmental Laboratory. “I didn't know the Corps Major Subordinate Commands would present their innovations. I enjoyed finding out about their work and talking to the representatives.”

Pittman opened the second day of the Summit and Tom Holden, regional business director for USACE-Mississippi Valley Division, followed, describing advancements along the Mississippi River valley, including the recently completed Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System.  

Richard Kidd, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Strategic Integration (Installations, Energy and Environment), delivered the second keynote address, discussing the need for innovation in the Army, the three key trends affecting installations and the importance of modernizing installations. David Ollila, president and chief innovation officer of Skypoint Ventures, provided the third and final keynote address from a private industry perspective, sharing his personal innovation experiences and talking about the importance of a culture that welcomes innovations from the bottom-up.

Ollila then served as moderator of the “Live with USACE” Leaders panel, where Corps leaders shared their perspective on how technology and innovation can advance USACE mission areas. Dovarius Peoples, director of Corporate Information, USACE, served as one of the panelists.  

The last panel, Collaboration Opportunities, was moderated by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Crear and included panelists who shared insights and information about USACE partnerships. Upcoming development, prototyping, production and licensing collaboration opportunities were also discussed, with audience members inquiring about point-of-contact information.

“The event was very well done,” Davis said. “Structurally, the program itself was put together well. Everything from sessions to exhibits to food flowed well. I liked what I learned from the sessions. I appreciated the opportunities to hear what leaders inside and outside the Corps thought about infusing our work with innovation. In particular, I valued the view that ideas lead to innovation. Ideas don't have to be fully fleshed out to be considered, but having an end-use for the idea is necessary at the start.”

Anna Shidlovskaya, a graduate student representing Texas A&M University’s Sediment and Erosion Control Laboratory, said that she enjoyed the event and met a number of participants from industry, ERDC laboratories and USACE Headquarters. “I liked that I was able to make some good connections,” she said.

Deepak Aatresh, founder and chief executive officer, Aditazz, Inc., shared his perspective on the Summit. “My takeaway is: A) there is a diverse set of challenging problems; B) there is a desire to move faster and to innovate; and C) that they are very open to partnerships with private industry. And this is not very well understood in Silicon Valley, where I come from. Most people tend to go to commercial establishment resolutions. They don’t look hard enough at the needs of the Department of Defense. I’ve certainly changed my outlook on that.”