Story by MC3 Samuel Bacon
NAVAL BASE KITSAP-BREMERTON, Wash.- The clamor of the small crowd slowly dies as the lights begin to dim. A panel of judges take their places at a table in a scene that almost mirrors an episode of Shark Tank or The Apprentice.
Unlike the TV shows, the intent of this gathering is not to make money, but to save it. As the Navy faces a quickly evolving world, the Athena Project is one of the first programs to look for internal advice regarding tactical and strategic long-term innovations rather than pursuing contractors or an outside think-tank.
The Athena Project was originally founded aboard USS Benfold (DDG 65) in 2013, and has increased exponentially since then. Events were launched in San Diego, Norfolk and the Pacific North West this year, to give Sailors across the Navy the stage.
Three Sailors from USS Nimitz (CVN 68) submitted their ideas for consideration. These concepts ranged from finding new and healthier food sourcing for ships underway, to creating a social support program to assist stressed Sailors.
Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Sarah Van Woy, from Nimitz’ Health Services Department, was given eight minutes to explain her idea to an audience and panel members. Her project focus was clear-cut and straightforward; improve the health of sailors by replacing processed food with alternatives. The secondary objective was to change the supply chain to prioritize the local area that the Nimitz occupied when resupplying.
Cryptologic Technician 2nd Class David Toth, a member of Nimitz’ IFX Department introduced his plan to decrease Navy spending on Temporary Assigned Duty (TAD). When Sailors go TAD, the Navy pays for travel and hotel rooms. Toth suggested an alternative option, using Navy-owned empty barracks rooms at nearby bases to support TAD Sailors.
Lt. Cmdr. Theresa Donnelly, the Public Affairs Officer for Nimitz, proposed establishing command support groups as an alternative to one-on-one counseling during her eight minutes on stage. A project based around the concept of volunteer led coordinators that could run eight-week courses centered on the needs of the crew.
“Athena is about making the connections and making real change in a venue that really doesn’t exist anywhere else for Sailors in the Navy,” said Lt. Daniel Conley, the Athena Project lead coordinator for Navy Base Kitsap. “Technology is evolving and improving at a pace that far exceeds what our own systems seem to be able to keep up with. It’s imperative that we ensure our military is keeping pace of improvements and technological systems.”
Conley introduced an idea to Athena in 2015, curating a project on a universal breathing mask alternative. With the Navy using several types of masks; the MCU-2P gas mask, the self-contained breathing apparatus for fighting fires and the emergency evacuation breathing device, Conley’s concept was to combine the features of all the masks into a hybrid model.
“My own pitch did not win when I presented at Athena, but it did lead to me presenting at the Defense Entrepreneurs Form (DEF) in Chicago,” Conley said. “The connections made at venues such as DEF and Athena and the other innovation initiatives are all striving to provide a support network for any innovators.”
Contractors and service members alike come together quarterly at the Athena Project to pitch and launch ideas that can bring change that can echo throughout the Navy. After several rounds of review, selected ideas can be implemented to help save money and improve the lives of Sailors and civilians throughout the Navy.
“Innovation comes from anywhere, and Athena gives these presenters the ability to get their ideas heard and receive feedback,” said Alan Kent, Technical Director at Naval Undersea Museum Keyport and Athena Project participant. “Deckplate ideas can be some of the best ideas, seeing as it’s coming from the deckplates themselves.”
The event allows Sailors to practice their public speaking as well, in some cases stepping outside their normal comfort zones to communicate new ideas to strangers.
“The right presentation is a mix of value of the idea, quality of the presentation, refinement of details and ability of the presenter to demonstrate the concept has been thought out and ability to field questions to that effect,” said Conley.
Van Woy said Athena is a great venue, not just to voice concerns but to try and change things for the better.
“I came away with some great positive feedback though, so it gave me some great ideas for when I try again next time,” said Van Woy. “When given a chance to change things, if I didn’t participate, it’d bother me until I said something.”
After the presentation, judges and audience members mingled together with the Sailors to help refine their ideas with additional content and modifications so they could resubmit the idea at a later date.
By the end, one idea was selected by the judges, a concept regarding improvement on internal communications on board ships within the Navy.
“No good idea ends at Athena,” said Conley. “Even though people encounter ‘no’s’ to ideas and proposals, there is always another avenue with which to approach getting an idea heard or doing something about it. It is about the personal initiative of the individual.”