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Boeing CTO Greg Hyslop speaks at Day 2 of the GeekWire Summit 2017 in Seattle on Wednesday, October 11, 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other heavyweights from the technology world are spending billions to tackle the next frontier of space travel and advanced aerospace research.

But don’t count out a little 102-year-old company born on the shores of the Duwamish River in Seattle. The new competition facing Boeing — from the billionaires of tech who run privately held companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin  — is a good thing, and a battle that the $204 billion company can win.

At least that’s the view of Boeing’s top geek, chief technology officer Greg Hyslop.

Speaking at Boeing’s annual Innovation Awards at the Museum of Flight in Seattle on Tuesday night, Hyslop tied together Boeing’s rich history with a compelling view of the future, and how those two forces, often at odds with one another, can help drive innovation.

He cited the story of company founder Bill Boeing — the former timber magnate who fell in love with flight and imagined building a better, faster airplane. Hyslop compared him to some of the new entrants now intrigued with aerospace.

“Here we are today 102 years later. And, now, we are in the same type of thing, because we have people who have made their money in other industries, whether it is in PayPal or on Google or Amazon or someplace else, they have made their money, and they are now fascinated by the ability of colonizing Mars, space tourism — and it is changing our industry again,” Hyslop said.

“So, our challenge as a 102-year-old company is, how do we act like we are a 2-year-old company? And that is what we have to do,” he said. “We have to be nimble, we have to be fast and we have to reward those that are coming up with the good ideas, but we can’t turn our back on who we are are as the Boeing Co.”

Innovative ideas were on display at the evening’s event — a seated dinner held beneath many of the airplanes that Boeing helped pioneer — with scientists and engineers at the company celebrated for technologies such as “Autoland Pitch Augmentation” and “Simplification of Complex Waveguide Networks.”

The winning inventions included a redesigned landing gear that smoothed the way for the 737 MAX 10’s creation (with engineers Justin Cottet, Mitchell Mellor, George Sonnenburg and James Cusworth taking the spotlight); and a flexible insulation blanket that will result in huge cost savings for the yet-to-be-built Phantom Express space plane (courtesy of inventor Robert DiChiara).

Three Boeing employees were recognized for achieving 100 patents or more — not an easy feat at a company where much of Boeing’s intellectual property is protected as trade secrets.

Hyslop painted a picture of a new era at Boeing, one in which fast-moving innovation thrives and non-traditional partnerships such as the company’s HorizonX venture investments are the norm.

“They are partnering with us because of who we are,” said Hyslop. “But we can’t not be Boeing, because that is who we are, and that is what they value.”

But Hyslop — who described the Innovation Awards as one of the “best nights of my year” — also discussed the challenges of laying new groundwork while staying true to the company’s roots.

“We always have the choice in our company as to whether our history is a foundation, or an anchor,” he said. “And it needs to be a foundation that we can build upon, as opposed to an anchor that holds us back. And I believe we will have the wisdom to make that distinction as we move ahead.”

That positions the company for success even as new entrants look to disrupt the century-old aerospace industry, he said.

“Our success is tied to having the best ideas and the best people … and that is why we are going to win, because we go forward,” said Hylsop. “Regardless of who the competition is, I believe we are going to win.”

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