For the Navy to stay up-to-date with today’s rapidly evolving technology, it can’t operate in isolation. Which is why the Hon. James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, created the Naval Expeditions Agility Office (NavalX) as part of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
NavalX launched in February 2019 to connect the internal Department of Navy (DON) with external DON partners to increase awareness of, and access to, best practices and technologies. These contacts would be made through Tech Bridges—off-base locations that synergize relationships among startups, academia, corporations, small businesses, nonprofits, private capital and government entities.
Each of these collaborative “hubs” is designed to solve pressing problems and technology needs as identified by the fleet, as well as more localized issues from the host site’s region.
Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division (NSWC PHD) doesn’t have its own official Tech Bridge, but late last year unveiled the Fathomwerx innovation lab and joint-use collaborative space housing state-of-the-art equipment provided by the command. Fathomwerx aligns well with the NavalX mission of connecting Navy personnel with public sector innovators.
The command helped create Fathomwerx through a Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA) with the Ventura County Economic Development Collaborative, which leases the space from the Port of Hueneme. A fourth partner, Camarillo, Calif.-based Matter Labs, was brought in to attract small high-tech companies that eventually will have access to the lab, along with other members of the community.
The lab officially opened Nov. 26 to employees of Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC) within a 60,000-square-foot warehouse at the Port of Hueneme seaport and operates 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays or by appointment. Port officials are working on public access requirements, to be unveiled by spring 2020.
Representatives of NavalX visited the site Jan. 27 to see how NSWC PHD has created its own nexus of high-impact knowledge and skills combined with the needed tools to see ideas brought to life.
“We didn’t start out to build a Tech Bridge, but we’ve gotten really close to the intent,” said Alan Jaeger, manager of PHD’s Office of Research and Technology Applications. “We have educational partnership agreements; we have cooperative research and development agreements. We can come and work side-by-side with academia, with industry and with business startups.”
Capt. Frank Futcher, NavalX director, Cmdr. Sam Gray, NavalX Tech Bridges national director, and Josh Caplan, NavalX Southern California Tech Bridge director were among those touring the Fathomwerx space.
Gray said six Tech Bridges are up and running and connected with Navy warfare centers around the country, though more by serendipity than by design. He pointed out that all the Tech Bridges are in a public space, which is a key factor in choosing a location. The NavalX office is in a co-working tech shop in Alexandria, Virginia.
“We have an event space where we host open houses and bring industry, academia and others together for the purposes of networking,” Gray said.
NavalX also has hosted workshops and events like Pitch Day in its headquarters space.
Being off base lowers both physical and cultural barriers, Gray said, inviting in those who have not previously worked with the government, such as local small businesses that might have been intimidated or overwhelmed by the DON contracting processes.
“It’s easy for them to come down and engage with us,” he said.
Futcher said they are on a mission to visit all the warfare centers, as well as other Navy and Marine Corps installations that already have strong connections to their surrounding communities to scout for potential future Tech Bridge sites.
“What we are trying to do is connect together a Community Of Practice (COP) and perhaps make that a part of the NavalX network at some point,” Futcher explained.
A COP is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.
“The idea is, let’s not build anything new,” Gray said. “If it exits, we want to capitalize on that.
“We are actually open to going to any ecosystem,” he added. “The way to think about a Tech Bridge is it’s a platform where you can work on collaborative projects more quickly because of the ability to do it without the barriers that Navy bases inherently bring. We call it a franchise model; we want it to be as adaptable as possible to what the local ecosystem wants.”
NavalX serves more as an organizing entity rather than a funding source.
“We don’t do any contracting or procurement,” Futcher said. “What NavalX is essentially trying to do is better enable and facilitate this giant research and development enterprise that we already have, and better connect with both the fleet and with industry to collaborate on projects and share information.”
While Fathomwerx does limit access because of the port’s security requirements, as an established co-working space with strong community partnerships it could serve as a connector in the broader NavalX network.
“It’s a great model that I think NavalX may want to consider putting into its kit bag in order to foster this building of collaborative, creative partnerships and spaces,” said NSWC PHD Deputy Technical Director Vance Brahosky.
“We have a Navy that we need to take care of today,” he added. “That requires innovation in technology. That technology needs to be transferrable. NSWC PHD is already leading in a lot of different areas.”
For more news from NAVSEA and the Warfare Centers, go to www.navsea.navy.mil.