Using open innovation to source unexpected solutions

How MagQuest embraced the benefits of prize competitions to meet a mission-critical challenge.


More than a billion smartphone users depend on the World Magnetic Model (WMM) to point them in the right direction when they use mobile navigation apps. And the WMM is critical to military and commercial applications, from aircraft navigation to telecommunications. As WIRED’s Sarah Scoles says, “Your ability to move about the world without getting lost actually depends on these measurements.”

Since 2013, space-based magnetic field measurements required to create the WMM have been provided by the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission, but the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) was looking for new, sustainable ways to collect geomagnetic data for the WMM. NGA wanted to think beyond the obvious solutions, but collecting geomagnetic data requires a high level of expertise. Novel concepts would need to be feasible enough to eventually advance to prototyping — and real-world viability. How could the agency bring fresh thinking to a highly technical problem?


NGA knew a large satellite mission like Swarm could provide the necessary data. But technological advancements have opened up possibilities for collecting different types of data from much smaller satellites, including nanosatellites like CubeSats. In addition to spaceborne solutions, NGA also wanted to consider aerial, terrestrial, and other potential solution areas. NGA already had a sense of the potential partners that might participate in a typical government contracting process. But what about emerging players and unknown solutions?

Open innovation programs — including public prizes — can invite new people to bring new ideas to existing problems, and the bidirectional flow of information can surface and accelerate novel solutions. But sponsoring organizations have less control over who participates, and the types of submissions can be somewhat unpredictable. Could open innovation serve as an efficient complement to traditional procurement, tapping into a bigger network and accelerating unexpected innovations?


Luminary Labs designed and produced MagQuest, NGA’s multiphase open innovation challenge to advance how we measure Earth’s magnetic field. The $2.1 million competition launched in 2019, and the third phase concluded in late 2020. To ensure viable outcomes for this highly technical challenge, we fostered collaboration, connected solvers with expert support, and designed for both speed and flexibility.

Collaboration. More than 20 stakeholders from NGA and other federal agencies participated in a challenge design workshop at NGA headquarters. We incorporated these and other external stakeholder perspectives in the design of Phases 1 and 2, and provided outreach toolkits to support cross-agency collaboration throughout all phases. We also fostered collaboration among solvers by hosting the MagQuest solver community during Phase 2. Since Phase 2 required more detailed designs and plans — and therefore greater breadth of expertise — some participants considered expanding their teams. In Phase 3, two teams joined forces; Spire Global and SBQuantum’s consolidated solution won a second-place award of $225,000.

Expert support. We formed early relationships with subject matter experts (SMEs), who informed challenge design by providing input on submission content, evaluation criteria, solver support, and incentives. During Phase 2, we developed educational webinars with SMEs that included a technical deep-dive on relevant submission topics and an overview of program management considerations; all interested solvers were invited to attend. During Phase 3, participating teams interacted with experts as they iterated and refined their designs and testing plans; SMEs from academia, industry, and government provided expertise in sensors, platform engineering, mission operations and program management, the World Magnetic Model, and geomagnetism.

Speed and flexibility. Delivering tangible impact within a short timeframe required strong client communication and mutual trust. We worked with NGA’s core MagQuest team to understand the conditions for success — such as making efficient decisions and effectively navigating internal reviews. When the coronavirus pandemic disrupted in-person meetings and events, we quickly adapted to make Phase 3 activities fully virtual, including solver support, a Design Review Event, and the winner announcement event.


“Our biggest worry when we started this was we’d get zero submissions. Or two,” NGA’s Mike Paniccia told WIRED. But the first phase yielded 40 submissions — a breadth of concepts ranging from seafloor observatories to satellites, from a diverse set of nontraditional solvers who would not have otherwise worked on the problem area. Ten Phase 1 teams each received a $20,000 prize. Phase 2 was open to solvers from Phase 1, as well as new solvers who did not participate in the first phase of the challenge, and sought detailed designs and plans for data collection methodologies. Five Phase 2 teams each received a $200,000 prize.

Six solver teams from Phase 2 were invited to participate in Phase 3. The teams had six months to prepare a submission that demonstrated completion of major design decisions, described specific hardware and software selections, detailed testing approaches to mitigate risks, and provided evidence in support of overall performance. Following team presentations at a virtual Design Review Event and nominations from the judging panel, MagQuest awarded $900,000 to Phase 3 winners.

“MagQuest has advanced scientific and technical innovations that could be key to the future of geomagnetic data collection, specifically approaches that are both sustainable and scalable,” said NGA Senior GEOINT Authority J.N. Markiel, Ph.D. The results of MagQuest will inform NGA’s acquisition strategy for a WMM global magnetic field data collection capability, with an expected procurement that can provide operational capacity by 2027. In recognition of MagQuest’s success, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence awarded NGA the 2019 Intelligence Community Acquisition Award for Team Innovation.