How an E-5 Dental Tech is Supporting the Navy’s Energy Security

By HM2 Joshua Cranford


Beginning fiscal year 2017 the United States Naval Academy (USNA) will be starting research into partially premixed diesel fuel as a measure to ensure the Navy’s energy security. They’ll do this with funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) as a direct result of a pitch that I made. Did I mention I’m a Second Class Petty Officer; who serves as a Dental Technician?

Empathizing with the reader taking this information in let me answer the obvious question- Yes, reality is stranger than fiction. Had I worked for a company like Google or Facebook and suggested an app for the company to produce, it would be very easy to digest one of these titans of innovations running with an idea from any source; but the Navy? One of the largest bureaucracies in the world listening to a… Dental Tech… on macroeconomic energy trends? The Navy has something Google and Facebook don’t though, and that’s ATHENA. And well, you know, a slightly over-zealous Dental Tech. Having said all that just know this isn’t a politically correct puff piece; just for the record- the Navy doesn’t pay E-5’s enough to write those.

A NAVADMIN was released in December of 2015 calling for sailors with a “High Risk, High Reward” idea to submit an application to the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC). I read about this and submitted 18 pages of “this is so obscure, it might work” and associated documents on how to integrate hydrogen use into the fleet as a viable substitute for fossil fuels. Long story short my proposal on how to allocate $1.3 million for a proof of concept for Project Water Engine (PWE) fell by the way of congress defunding the CRIC- I wrote angry letters to both of my senators and my congressmen; but I digress.

A few weeks later I got an email from the CRIC coordinator informing me about ATHENA DC 1.0 taking place at the Sea Air and Space Symposium in just over a month. I sent off my white paper on PWE to ATHENA with all the enthusiasm an individual typical has when purchasing lottery tickets. Yeah I was ready for a win, but I wasn’t expecting my number to come up… I won the preverbal lottery.


The panelists and presenters at Athena DC 1.0, hosted at the 2016 Sea Air Space Expo.

Immediately after ATHENA informed me I would be pitching, I got an email from the good people at ONR asking if I needed help refining my five-minute pitch. Well I looked up who I would be pitching to (a three-star admiral, and three other individuals with a collective IQ around 550ish), had a momentary panic attack, and then humbly accepted the offer for help. The three individuals I meet with at ONR took the weighty tomb of my novel idea and made it sound intelligible enough for a meaningful five-minute pitch.

Sea Air and Space came and if memory serves correctly, I was the fifth best pitch of five presenters. Measuring success is tricky business though. The conversation on PWE continued long after my five-minute public forum was concluded. The conversation also led me to being connected with the Naval Innovation Network; a group of driven individuals who don’t need to be told “it’s their Navy”; they already know.

After the pitch I guess is when you could say the real work started. I received an email from ONR again. While confidence in a project that called for gasoline-hydrogen-hybrids was thin, I was informed that there could be a funding possibility. ONR had money to spend but it needed to come from the Naval Enterprise Partnership Teaming with Universities for National Excellence (NEPTUNE) initiative; AKA alternatives energy research that goes through a college capstone/ research project. I had some work to do to align interests on PWE. I took to the Naval Innovation Network and tracked down some individuals at the Naval Academy. After some real champions of innovations pointed me in the right direction I found the Mechanical Engineering Department.


The panelists and presenters at Athena DC 1.0, hosted at the 2016 Sea Air Space Expo.

From the start I wanted to prove that Hydrogen could be used as a cheap/ sustainable supplemental/ primary fuel in internal combustion engines; specifically, with gasoline. Fast forward a few months and a professor in the MECH ENG DEPT asks me the question “why not diesel, it’s the Navy’s favorite fuel source”. There’s more though- there was a concept floating around academia about pre-mixing hydrogen with diesel fuel. I looked at PWE and this concept of partially premixed diesel fuel fit like a glove.

So I had a few building blocks to work with: my idea, a college wanting to explore a new concept very similar to my idea, and funding for a college to explore my idea. Well ONR was very receptive to partially premixed diesel fuel and the Academy was very receptive to the idea of getting funding for a research project.

So if you’re considering submitting your idea to ATHENA for the opportunity to pitch remember three things:

  1. Never accept a “no” from someone who’s not authorized to say yes.
  2. A dental tech is influencing alternative energy research in the Navy.
  3. This one is from MCPON (ret) Stevens and couldn’t apply more- Build on small successes, and stay positive!

Supporting the innovator to support the innovation.

HOWEVER, I hope it’s been noted that ATHENA never directly supported my “Innovation”. ATHENA supported me- the innovator. It was on me to align interests and exploit the Naval Innovation Network that I was connected with to promote my innovation. ATHENA provided me an opportunity to present my idea. More than that- ATHENA gave me the opportunity to create opportunity.

-Go Navy, Beat EVERYONE!


“Joshua Cranford is currently assigned to Naval Health Clinic Annapolis as a the Dental department ALPO and is currently pursuing a degree in mathematics.”

Introducing, ATHENA Far East!

By LTJG Tom Baker


USS BENFOLD (DDG 65), the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and a team of innovation veterans from fleet concentration areas across the United States have teamed up in Japan to establish ATHENA Far East, our first permanent ATHENA hub outside of the continental United States!

Rooting itself at Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY), Japan, the opportunities to collaborate with Japanese and American sailors are tremendous.

The surface and submarine mariner of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces across Yokosuka Bay, an entrepreneurship professor from a local university, the talented civilian maintenance community, an aviation mechanic in Aircraft Carrier RONALD REAGAN…we will reach at every corner of civilian and military entrepreneurship to bring the same diverse conversation under one roof that has made every ATHENA so successful before us!

If you are in Japan, make plans now to join us on January 15th from 1245 – 1430 at the Commodore Matthew Perry General Mess “Tatami Room” on the Yokosuka Navy Base.

Any Military members or DoD Civilians interested in pitching ideas at this event can reach out on facebook or connect with us on the gmail account listed below!

Connect with Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail!


Resurrection: A Story About Not Giving Up

By: LTJG Rob McClenning


When I won the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage at Athena 2 with the idea of developing Environmental Acoustic Recognition System (EARS), I can confidently say I was the most surprised person there.

In my mind, EARS was at best a mediocre idea, at worst it was blatant stealing from the Army. While history is full great innovators with “Eureka!” moments, EARS was born out of frustration and fear. Being on the bridge of a billion dollar warship with fog so thick you cannot see the bow, and your best bet to avoid collision is a Deck Seaman who is vaguely familiar with sound signals.

It’s enough to make even the youngest Ensign start sprouting gray hairs.

The basic concept of EARS is to take Army counter sniper technology and place it on warships to detect sound signals in low visibility environments as well as detect engines of small craft that are too small to be picked up on radar and that may not be visible to the bridge watchstanders. The Navy’s current remedy to low visibility is to open the bridge wing doors and place Deck Seamen and Supply Department Sailors topside to relay the sounds they hear to the bridge. Basically it’s like driving blind down a highway, while your friend sticks their head out the window to listen for the cars.

Most of the research for my initial EARS pitch was based off of the Army’s Boomerang project. Boomerang is an array of 8 microphones placed on the back of a humvee. When the humvee takes incoming fire, the Boomerang system uses the differentiating pressure waves on each microphone and projects the direction and estimated range of the shooter. This is information is then displayed inside to the driver.

The Army's Boomerang system.

The Army’s Boomerang system.

With some simple reprogramming of the sounds being detected, I believe Boomerang could easily be installed on ships as a boon to the bridge watchstanders. After my less than spectacular victory speech I was approached by several engineers from the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies to discuss various ways to do a proof of concept and possible prototype. We were all very excited to get to work right away and really make a difference.

After two months of emailing back and forth, Dave Nobles and myself received the beginnings of EARS. USC had successfully completed proof of concept with two Xbox Kinects and a cell phone. The bad news was they did not have the funding to continue any further development. Undaunted with the set back I pressed on, surely there was someone willing to back an Athena winner?

I decided to email the makers of the Boomerang system directly. There was no better choice than the people who actually made the equipment that EARS was based on, plus if it worked, they could make a profit by selling it to the Navy. However, Raytheon did not respond to my first email, or my second, or even my third. At this point, a year had passed since EARS had won Athena 2. Despite my best efforts and some mild interest, it seemed as if EARS was dead.

EARS was running out of options and it looked like it was going to die on the vine.

EARS was running out of options and it looked like it was going to die on the vine.

Another year passed with no hope of EARS being developed. I had transferred from BENFOLD and was working at COMNAVSURFPAC as the NFAAS coordinator. One day out of the blue I received an email from Bill Hughes, who served as the Navigator on BENFOLD. Now working at the Pentagon, Bill said he saw a presentation that I might be interested in.

Opening the attachment, I read through brief from the Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), on a system called FireFly. FireFly is essentially the Army’s own version of Boomerang, but better. ARMDEC added a camera as well as made the whole platform much more mobile. I decided to reach out to the Army PAO listed and see if AMRDEC had any interest in converting their equipment to maritime use.

After a few weeks of no response, I finally received an email from Dr. Tim Edwards, who works as the Chief Scientist for the FireFly project. Not only were they interested, but they had been actively seeking ways to break into the maritime community. We quickly setup a phone conference to get a feel what were working with. I was stunned by the amount of enthusiasm that Dr. Edwards and his team brought to the table. Dr. Edwards was able to allocate additional funding towards developing FireFly specifically for shipboard use, and he even offered to send a FireFly to me. Being a LTJG with no ship I had to unfortunately decline.

We continued to bounce ideas back and forth and since then we have reached out to several scientists at SPAWAR. Now we are attempting to coordinate with the Chief Science Advisor at COMNAVSURFPAC to find a test platform for FireFly. Meanwhile Dr. Edwards and his team are continuing to test FireFly with various small boat engines, and so far the results are promising.

While some ideas will naturally gain greater interest, it’s important as an innovator to keep pressing forward. Even if you win, the hard work is just starting. As painful a lesson as it is, in the Navy we know getting a new piece of equipment takes time. Even though Athena is taking great strides to speed up the process, it still takes time, sometimes months, and sometimes years. But any change that is truly worth while is worth the effort.

So EARS isn’t dead, not by a long shot, it just changed its name.

LTJG Rob McClenning is the Prospective Training Officer onboard the guided missile destroyer USS GRIDLEY, homeported out of San Diego, California. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri.

Athena East 2.0 is right around the corner, October 2nd in Norfolk! Connect with The Athena Project on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail!

Artistry… from the Sea

By: LT Dave Nobles


I was on a flight not too long ago when something stood out to me. Rather, some one.

It was just your run-of-the-mill Southwest Airlines flight from San Diego to Chicago, about a week before the rush of holiday travel with people clamoring to get home to family to enjoy a heaping helping of Thanksgiving turkey.

But this flight turned out to be exceptional, and the one who shattered the humdrum, monotonous chore of air travel was an energetic flight attendant. I can see how it would be easy for any flight attendant to slap on a fake smile, give a half-hearted, robotic safety brief, toss passengers some peanuts and tell them “buh bye” as they depart the aircraft on the way to their final destinations.


Very easy to feel like you’re in an SNL skit on a flight.

But not this flight attendant. Her charisma was magnetic – contagious even. She joked with passengers, delighted everyone on the announcing system, gave an entertaining and informative safety brief and appeared to genuinely care about the passengers. She even sang the song, “Sweet Home Chicago” as we landed in the Windy City. All around, her effort made the flight enjoyable and memorable (at the very least, she made me forget about the painful “cattle call” seating experience!).

The great companies – The ones with endearing products that delight the consumer – have this same tendency to treat their work as art. Just like that memorable flight attendant. From Apple’s focus on getting even the smallest detail right to Stone Brewing Company creating amazing craft brews while having a blast to Whole Foods’ commitment to healthy selections and friendly service, those organizations that treat their work as art succeed. The effort is evident in the product.

In the Navy, our product is readiness. In a grander sense, what we deliver to our customers (American people) is freedom, but we do that by ensuring that our ships, submarines and aircraft are ready – Ready to operate forward, ready to deter aggression, and ready to win a fight if necessary.

The tough part is that readiness is difficult to quantify, and that sometimes impacts the motivation of our Sailors. The best measure of our readiness to complete the mission when challenged is often the final grade of an inspection. Over time, this has the potential to negatively impact Sailors’ performance – the grand question of purpose.

Was she focused on the bottom line for the airline? Profits and losses? Nope. She just wanted to be better. It was inspiring. It was working like an artist.

In the case of my flight, the genuine artistry of this amazing flight attendant resulted in a better flight. You could see it on every face on that airplane. For Sailors in the Navy, working like an artist is about being passionate and creative. It’s about finding ways to make things better and about killing the phrase “that’s the way it’s always been done.”


Imagine a ship full of linchpins!

Entire books and blogs preach the practice of working like an artist. In the book Linchpin, Seth Godin offers a stream of quotables on the topic. He claims that rather than seeking a better job or boss, we need to all get in touch with what it means to feel passionate about our work, because people with passion look for ways to make things happen.

What can we do to make things happen, especially at junior levels? Look for ways that your ship, submarine, squadron or command can get better. Have the confidence to let your voice be heard, and the perseverance to see your ideas through. Spoiler alert: it’s going to be hard work. But, if we have courageous patience, we might actually get something done!

After all, like Godin said, “Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.”

So, let’s all be passionate about what we do. Let’s work like artists and sing “Sweet Home Chicago” all the way to a better Fleet.


LT Dave Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned as Weapons Officer aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.

You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail!

Make A Dent From Wherever You Are


By: LT Dave Nobles

Since we’ve started making moves with The Athena Project, I’ve been a bit of a maven for the process. Often, the feedback is great. I see people get energized to participate and/or attend, and they almost immediately launch into impromptu ideation sessions for worthy ideas to showcase to the group.

Sometimes, though, I feel a bit like Harold Hill from The Music Man trying to sell trombones to a town that doesn’t listen to music. Or, more appropriately, a town that jams out to a different style.

Also, I’m told by my Navigator that that reference will be lost on many (Click the link! It’s a great musical!)

I started thinking about what might cause the negative response. Granted, I’m biased, but I believe Athena is a small step toward building the type of intellectually curious Sailor that our Fleet needs.

Part of the cause is the fact that there are folks out there who feel there’s no place for innovation or ideas to bubble up from the deckplates in our organization. They’re few and far between, but they’re there. Honestly, I feel bad for them, and I feel bad for those that have to serve under them. Leaders like that form a thick layer of permafrost in our organization, stifling ideas before they can melt through.

That being said, it’s the person with the idea that’s responsible for “heating it up” enough to break through that frosty layer.

That leads me to the other, more prevalent part. There are innovative minds out there that don’t think they can make a dent, regardless of where they are vertically in an organization. That discouraging thought can result in a failure to launch, a failure to believe that they can make a difference, and ultimately a failure to act.

Well, I’m here to tell you: That just ain’t true.

There are success stories from around our organization about people who have made their marks. Further, we have a rich history of brave innovators from within our ranks breaking through solid layers of icy bureaucracy to swing the hammer. Perhaps the most notable of these stories is the story of Admiral William Sims, who is the namesake of the award that goes to the winner of The Athena Project.

The Admiral’s story has been recounted by many, including this blog entry from the United States Naval Institute, so I’ll summarize. As a Lieutenant in the early 1900s, Sims knew that he had found the answer to gunnery methods that were plaguing our battleships after watching the British operate. He tried to send those concerns up through his chain of command, and they told him to get back in his box.

So, he told the Secretary of the Navy.

And it radically changed the way we fight.

Sims’ story is proof: It doesn’t matter what your rank is, you can make a difference. But you’ll never make a dent if you don’t pick up the hammer. But Sims isn’t the only one: Our Armed Forces are full of stories like this, from Admiral Grace Hopper bringing technology to the Fleet at a junior level to Army soldiers developing the Rhino to protect convoys against heat-activated Improvised Explosive Device (IED) detonations. Good ideas can, and have, been brought to fruition by passionate, junior personnel. These are the “Yelpers” – the people who are passionate enough about their idea to stand up and say something about it.

Damn the red tape, full speed ahead.

The Athena Project is linking up the people with ideas that want to make a dent with “makers” that can give speed to that hammer strike. It’s a place where you can go to present your vision and have it at least be considered by all those other people who are passionate enough about bringing fresh ideas to the Fleet to be there. It’s a place where your whisper turns into a shout, and a place where the connections that we’re welding can lead to some real innovation.

At the risk of transitioning from The Music Man to John Belushi’s famous Animal House speech: Bring your ideas! Present them at Modern Times Brewery on October 25th in San Diego and make that dent, regardless of where you are. You may be sitting on the next dent that completely changes the game.

If we make enough dents, together we can shape the structure to what we want it to be.

You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

LT Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Weapons Officer.

Work, Basketball and the Manager With A Dream.


By: LT Clarence Harris

Marshay Gorman was the manager of my high school basketball team. I know what you’re thinking: Why is a former Naval Academy fullback babbling about the manager of my high school basketball squad in this innovation blog? Well, I’ll tell you…

Marshay handled all the team’s equipment during my freshman and sophomore years. Coach would always fuss about him shooting during the Junior Varsity and Varsity practices. He also had a tendency to dribble the ball at the most inopportune times and regularly got an earful of Coach as a result. Marshay loved the game, though. Inside that manager was a vision of greatness.

Day in and day out for two years Marshay would dribble and shoot hours before the team hit the court and he’d do it again hours after the late practices were over. Before and after games he practiced his tail off and continued to dream of becoming a part of the team and proving not only to himself but to everyone that believed and him that he could do it.

Greatness doesn’t come easy and making something happen against heavy odds is even harder. But then there was Marshay. During tryouts at the beginning of our junior season, the once-manager hit the court and shocked everyone. He had some serious game.  The coaches saw it too and Marshay made the team. Even though he was fighting for an already-taken position, he become a starter quickly and went on to become the conference’s leading scorer. It was awesome to see all of his desire and determination come to life before all of our eyes.

We all often reflected on the vision that he had and the drive that he possessed to get to that point. He was humble and determined to make a positive contribution to our team and make us better than we were without him. We all know what he had gone through to get to this point and welcomed him with open arms. All those nonbelievers became believers and rooted him…US on!

Marshay was hungry. He not only had the desire to, but knew that he could help our basketball team in winning and becoming better as a whole. He know that he would have to work when others were resting he know that it would not be easy. He knew that if he simply told our coach that he wanted to play on the team and contribute that the coach wouldn’t entertain the idea. The guy had dreams. Dreaming about hitting that game winner was easy for Marshay – he loved the game of basketball.

What he had to do was do.  And doing isn’t always easy.  It’s work.

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with innovation, The Athena Project, or making our organization better? If you ask me I will quickly tell you that there are a lot of Marshay Gormans amongst us. People who have the dream, the vision, and are willing to put in the work to make a contribution to our Navy team. To make a change for the better.

The tough part about it is that we can’t forget that this change may not happen in a week, a month or even a year. But we can’t give up. Having a vision is one thing, but putting in the work to make it happen is something else altogether. Sometimes things get rough, but we have to continue to believe in our ideas and not be deterred by any naysayers. We have to ‘Marshay Up’ – Work Hard. Work Late. Work Before. Work After. Do whatever it takes to make your vision come to life. Your contribution is needed and welcomed. And you will be backed up by everyone that understands the time, energy, and focus is essential to making a change for the better. And you to will be rooted on to the finish.

You just have to pick up the ball and start dribbling.

You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

LT Harris is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Combat Systems Officer.