An area of highlight for many delegates at an industry conference such as World Aviation Festival, are panel discussions from leading experts around strategies for fostering innovation within our sector. In recent years, airlines have increasingly sought out senior talent from outside the industry as a means of injecting diverse new ideas, corporate values, and creative processes. IAG group is no exception.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing IAG Group’s Head of Innovation, Duspy Abiola on several occasions since meeting her in 2018. I’m pleased to say that she still approaches her influential role with the same fresh eyes and enthusiasm today, as she did back then – when she was one year into the role.
Dupsy joined IAG group after a successful exit from her start-up venture, Intern Avenue, a platform using technology to automate the process of selecting and sourcing job candidates. Before that she was a Private Practice barrister, having read Law at Oxford University. These just a few of her many academic and business accomplishments.
At IAG, she is responsible for sniffing out useful new tech and innovation partnerships and heads up the lauded Hangar 51 accelerator programme.
We sat down with Dupsy, who join the World Aviation Festival Agenda on December 1st in keynote session, to discuss how (if it all) the pandemic has altered IAG’s approach to innovation and working with start-ups.
Hangar 51 accelerator has been a lynchpin of IAG’s innovation strategy for the last five years. Has it continued to run through COVID?
We are really delighted to say that we took the decision to continue accelerator programmes. Last year was our first ever virtual programme and, like everyone else, we were looking to see how things would perform …. considering there was a lot of uncertainty in the markets. We decided to be super agile about our approach to the accelerator, so we virtualized content and used all the tools available to get as close as we could to the kind of engagement our start-ups and colleagues were used to. When we rolled out with our fifth Hangar 51 programme (in 2020), we took applications a little bit later than usual, but everything else pretty much stayed the same in terms of when the programme would run (which is usually over the winter) and we actually had the biggest cohort of start-up applicants we’ve ever had! We were really, really excited about that.
That is exciting! So, you’re now in the 2021 cycle. Has it been much the same?
It’s going great! We recently closed start-up applications for 2021 at the end of August, and we’re currently in the stage where we do all of the screening. So, we read all of the applications and we have final screening sessions with champions from throughout the group. We will have some additional sessions where we ask for more information for some of the applicants, and then we’ll have pitch week where we invite some of the strongest teams to pitch. It’s a bit like a Dragon’s Den moment for those teams! After that, various people within the IAG group, who have the need and bandwidth, can select start-ups to work with out of those candidates. We usually have around 50 start-ups pitch and our target is usually to take 10-15 into the program… but last year we took 22, so the number seems to be getting bigger and bigger.
How did IAG make the business case for continuing to fund and run an accelerator in such lean times?
I think there’s this common myth that engaging with the latest technologies is somehow a “nice-to-have” feature. With our accelerator programme, we are really looking for innovators who are pushing the boundaries and applying new technologies, and just now available technologies to real core business challenges that we are working on single every single month, every single year. The teams that we are working with are tackling real issues like sustainability, which the group cares very deeply about, as well as trying to look at ways that we can support our customers in this challenging time.
We’re experimenting with things like personalised boarding times and core technologies in the field of cyber security. These are examples core technologies that aren’t optional. Hangar 51 has enabled us to very rapidly implement some technologies that have improved operations and passenger experience right away.
Sounds like Hangar 51 is going strong! What else is new with regards to IAG innovation
I think now is really the time for innovation in the very broadest sense of the word. I can’t speak to any other teams or places, but I can certainly say for IAG, our innovation team has been, pretty flat out supporting the group on a number of really amazing projects to support the team. For example, we made a Net Zero commitment to the market, and we have leveraged the accelerator program to supporting innovators in the sustainability space. Last year we invested in zero Arabia, which is a hydrogen power train start-up. And then this year, we’ve added another sustainability category specifically around future of energy and power so we’re talking about sustainable aviation fuels.
Our industry has been hit hard by travel restrictions. Have start-ups experienced any additional pressures or new hurdles posed by the pandemic?
If you look at the market, there are multiple things happening in the start-up space. In some ways, more money has gone into travel and aviation start-ups. In the last year record amounts of investment have gone in, especially in the alternative aircraft space. From our investment in ZeroAvia, hydrogen power train start-up, to people looking at Air taxis and the like. So, there’s an awful lot that has actually happened in the last year from a Ventures perspective. There have been challenges for some start-ups but many of them have used this opportunity to create and roll-out really amazing new products. Take our partner Sherpa, for example, who were always in the business space. They’ve extended their capability to include health care and health credentials, and the travel restrictions tool we’ve created together to help passengers plan trips is a great show of resilience. In many ways COVID-19 has felt like an existential challenge for start-ups, but that’s part of the thrill of being in that space.