In the coming weeks, British Airways parent company IAG will enter the fifth year of its Hangar 51 accelerator program.
The initiative, which was unveiled in 2016, has grown from an initial four teams going through the 10-week program to 14 in last year’s cohort.
This time around, Dupsy Abiola, IAG head of global innovation, would personally like to see robots enter the program, but, perhaps more realistically, she expects to see startups with more innovative uses of artificial intelligence.
And, then there are the “wild cards” - loosely defined as those startups that don’t necessarily fit into categories, which have included airport operations, customer interaction and sustainability in the past.
Abiola points to companies such as Quantum Metric, which helps remove friction in the digital journey, and TroopTravel, which were part of the 2019 “wild card” category.
“I’m keen to see not only what is interesting, but also it’s an opportunity for innovators to challenge us on maybe things we are not thinking about.”
More broadly, Hangar 51 selects its startups based on the latest innovations focused on the airport, customers or other parts of the business.
Senior leaders within the group meet to talk through the key challenges currently faced, and the startups chosen are those with solutions that can meet those challenges.
“The program is designed for teams that have a product ready for commercialization. They just need that golden shot or lucky break.”
This is probably one of the main reasons why Hangar 51 has what Abiola refers to as a higher “commercialization rate” of about 60%, compared to an average of around 20% for other similar initiatives, she says.
Many of the companies in the program go on to extended trials, commercial contracts and sometimes investment if IAG sees a longer-term benefit of working with the startup.
Every year the program is tweaked and improved based on a “deep analysis” of feedback from the startups and internal teams interacted with over the 10-week program.
Abiola says that after the first program, the company looked at ways of making it easier for startups, such as speeding up the procurement process.
Between years two and three, she adds, some great startups came through the accelerator, but IAG found it wanted to support them more and share the learnings and value more widely across the group.
She points to Mindsay (formerly Destygo) as an example of a startup that was believed to bring benefits to many parts of the business.
One result of this has been wider engagement from within, with two or three of the airline chief executives and many senior executives from across the group getting involved in pitch days.
On top of the engagement generated by Hangar 51, Abiola says there’s huge benefit to be had from the group “rapidly working on multiple projects at once.”
“Being able to turn around the 14 teams that come to work with us, on 17 projects in 10 weeks - that is huge velocity in those particular areas. It’s also exciting for our teams to interface with startups and entrepreneurs and bring their input and it brings a level of innovation to the group at large.”
As Hangar 51 approaches its next intake, Abiola says it will probably follow a similar cycle to previous programs.
The application period runs from May through July, with a screening process to whittle down around 500 applications to about 40, for a pitch day in early September.
From there, 10 to 15 are selected for the program, which will run from October to December; startups are expected to present a “proof of value” at the end.
The “proof of value” is defined before the program starts and is devised by the internal team that will be working with the startup and the senior executive responsible for the budget.
They look at what the technology does and the challenges it needs to meet to come up with a specific use case as well as asses how future development might pan out.
Following its tradition of swapping bases so that all airlines within the group can get involved, the 2020 program will likely be run in London and Dublin.