Gulu Gambhir oversees Leidos‘ research and development initiatives and the direction of the company’s technology offerings in his roles as senior vice president and chief technology officer.
Gambhir became CTO at Leidos on a full-time basis in October 2013 and also is responsible for the company’s internal information technology initiatives.
The 24-year industry veteran recently caught up with ExecutiveBiz to discuss the company’s programs in research and development and how Leidos sets its R&D priorities, as well as partnerships with education organizations to build up the country’s future STEM workforce.
ExecutiveBiz: Which parts of Leidos have you focused primarily on over the last year?
Gulu Gambhir: I’ve been focused on a cross-organizational effort that is one of our CEO’s top priorities – Innovation. In order to encourage creativity and critical thinking to grow the company, we recognize that our culture needs to support innovation among our employees.
That means a willingness to try new things and seek opportunities to do things better; that we recognize and reward innovative efforts; and that we tolerate failure that yields meaningful results. One dimension of our innovation effort is the use of internal crowd sourcing for our research and development program. The program allows employees across the company to obtain internal seed funding to pursue their innovative ideas.
In the last twelve months, we have received over 200 employee-generated ideas focusing on new business areas and better approaches to solving our customers’ problems. Of those we funded, about a third yielded promising results and successfully transitioned from the initial funding phase to a larger, follow-on phase.
We also conducted an internal Innovation Massively Open Online Course, encouraging employees to develop skills in innovation competencies. The course focused on innovation skills like integrating ideas from a wide range of sources, improving customer interaction, and better determination of the right problem to solve.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you align Leidos’ technology agenda with its business strategy?
Gulu Gambhir: Close communications — and the use of business plans that contain technology components, rather than separate business plans and technology plans. Like most companies we have finite investment resources, and need to allocate funds strategically while maximizing spend.
We’ve divided our business into market segments, and prioritized these segments by growth and strategic importance to the company. Our investments are then allocated appropriately. We use a portfolio approach for our R&D strategy, with the majority of our R&D focused on technologies that have near- to mid-term payoff.
For this portion of the R&D investment, the technologists and I work very closely with our strategy and business leaders to ensure that our R&D investments support the business plans. These plans take into account our competition, and the technologists in the company play a key role in ensuring we develop appropriate technical differentiators.
We look at our customers’ missions and seek opportunities to help make them successful. Often, the introduction of new technology can help our customers while also providing us with a performance or cost differentiator. We also allocate approximately 10 percent of our R&D budget to more revolutionary advances, with longer expected timeframes to payoff.
These investments tend to be more of a ‘technology push’ versus the ‘business pull’ like the other part of our R&D portfolio, and are less closely aligned with business plans. We are unique among our peer group in our commitment to R&D through both a meaningful internal R&D budget and the amount of customer-funded R&D we do for organizations like DARPA, IARPA, and AFRL.
For Leidos, CRAD represents about 10 percent of our total annual sales and spans diverse technical domains like cybersecurity, ISR systems, and analytics. These domains represent high-growth areas for Leidos and investing in R&D in these areas is a natural extension of the company’s strategy.
ExecutiveBiz: Where do you see opportunity for more public-private R&D collaboration?
Gulu Gambhir: We have a number of research-focused collaborative efforts across the company. R&D-focused customers, like DARPA, and the U.S. government labs have a mandate to transition technology from a demonstration phase to operational use.
An example of this collaboration is the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel project we are executing for DARPA today and hope to transition to a customer like the U.S. Navy in the future. Leidos routinely enters into cooperative research and development agreements with the armed services, federal agencies and national laboratories to collaborate on important technologies and development opportunities.
The Defense Department’s Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative represents an outstanding opportunity for increased private-public collaboration in R&D. Many of the technologies DoD seeks to take advantage of are no longer the sole domain of DoD development pipelines or traditional defense contractors.
DoD no longer has exclusive access to the most cutting-edge technology. As a consequence, the department is now reaching out to the private sector, including those firms and academic institutions outside of DoD’s traditional orbit.
Beyond R&D-focused customers and national labs, we provide research funding to a number of universities across the U.S. that allows our employees to work with both professors and students in a collaborative fashion to address difficult problems. We are also a natural channel partner for small companies with innovative technologies that don’t have the ability to scale their offerings for use in large deployments.
ExecutiveBiz: What initiatives does Leidos have to promote STEM education?
Gulu Gambhir: We have a strategic relationship with ‘For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology’ because it is a nationwide program that covers where our employees live and work. It spans the full cycle of childhood education, from elementary through high school. Through the efforts of our employees volunteering their time as mentors, and corporate funding of student teams, we sponsored over 125 teams this past year.
Over the past six years, Leidos has donated close to 2.5 million dollars to this important program, and in 2014 alone, Leidos employee volunteers logged nearly 5,000 hours supporting K-12 STEM/FIRST activities. Thousands of students and hundreds of employees benefit from our Leidos-FIRST relationship.
ExecutiveBiz: What other tools can industry use to hire the future STEM workforce?
Gulu Gambhir: For getting college STEM majors into Leidos, we have a robust college program. We want to develop relationships with college students prior to their senior year. We hire 150-200 interns and another 200+ entry levels each year. Many of the entry-level hires spent summers with us as interns, most in computer science or engineering majors.
Our college program is focused around partnerships with universities that best align with our overall business at Leidos. The program covers many dimensions of outreach: we engage students in collaborative research projects, partner with campus career development offices and STEM diversity clubs and activities and have an active on-campus recruiting program.
All of these areas together help us to build a pipeline of technical STEM students for our intern and entry level needs.