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Posted by Michelle Holko on December 22, 2014
I first heard about the Combustion Chamber in early Spring 2014, billed as the firm’s Shark Tank-style innovation competition. I didn’t know much more than that, but I was intrigued, so I submitted my idea—a Viral Genome Toolbox to aid in the rapid detection of viruses—to the Los Angeles-based Combustion Chamber 2.0. I passed the first round of screening and had a subsequent phone interview, but my idea was not selected as a finalist.
This fall, I was again encouraged to participate in the Boston Combustion Chamber. I figured I would give it another try, since I was motivated to expand my initial Viral Genome Toolbox to include genomic sequence data and functionality for all microbial pathogens (viruses, bacteria, etc.). In September, I submitted my idea to build a client-ready Microbial Pathogen Database solution. This time, the phone call was less an interview, and more of a pitch: five minutes to describe the problem, my solution, the market context, and investment potential. That phone call was intimidating—a taste of what it would be like to stand and deliver in front of leaders, judges, and an audience. Despite my nerves, it went well, as I was selected as a finalist for the Boston Combustion Chamber shortly afterwards. I had two weeks to prepare, and was going to need every minute.
I was assigned a pitch coach right away, Armen, and scheduled 2 preparatory coaching sessions. Armen taught me the elements of a good pitch and provided valuable feedback. The week prior to the event, we had a dry-run practice session with the Combustion Chamber team—minus the judges. Although my coach had done a good job preparing me for the dry-run, I realized I had more work to do to train myself for the real thing.
On the plane ride to Boston on October 27th, I was still rehearsing my pitch. Fortunately, I sat next to another Combustion Chamber finalist, Dan Shor, who helped me downplay my stress about what was to come. When we arrived in Boston, the group of finalists and senior leaders—the judges for the night’s event—took a Duck Tour of the city. It was fun, adding some much-needed comic relief thanks to a hilarious tour guide, and was a great opportunity to meet the judges in a relaxed environment.
When I arrived at District Hall for the event later that night, I was first up to present my pitch while the other finalists were separated in another room until their turns arrived. This was incredibly nerve-racking, but also exciting because it meant that I would get to hear all the other pitches. Although presenting to the firm leaders was intimidating initially, I enjoyed the question-and-answer session after my pitch. The judges had great questions, and I got to talk more about my idea and why it was important. It was also great to hear other finalists’ ideas; I especially liked the solution about building a predictive traffic tool, as well as the Adaptive Resolution Tool to use existing data to build customized instructions for users.
There was a break after all the presentations concluded, and the judges deliberated. At that point, I was just relieved to have finished my pitch, and grateful for the opportunity. I was completely surprised—and excited—to learn that the judges awarded me $40,000 from the Solver Space initiative to prototype my idea! I am now working on a detailed project plan, and can’t wait to bring this idea to life. Once the project plan is complete, we will identify the team to develop the Microbial Pathogen Database from back to front in 10-12 weeks.
One of the reasons I chose to join Booz Allen last October is the firm’s commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation. Although I have never considered myself “entrepreneurial” in the past, I nonetheless have ideas. When I finally had one that could be applied to the business, I lacked the ability to develop it on my own. The Combustion Chamber and the Innovation Ecosystem team gave me the tools to do that.
I continue to be impressed by Booz Allen’s culture of innovation, and how platforms like the Combustion Chamber encourage all of us to develop new ideas into actionable solutions. Pitch events, Ecosystem tools, and partnerships like 1776 and the Cambridge Innovation Center send a clear message: that developing new ideas is valued, and that all Booz Allen employees can engage in this process. I am especially grateful to the Boston Combustion Chamber team for helping turn my idea into a reality—I could not have done it without the coaching and support of the team, as well as the other finalists. Thank you! I can’t wait to see what the next Chamber brings.
For another perspective on the Boston Combustion Chamber, read Julie McPherson’s blog post, “Boston Combustion Chamber: An Explosion of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.”