Hangar 51 – the aviation, innovation accelerator

The aviation sector is a hotbed of innovation, according to the head of global innovation at the International Airlines Group (IAG), Dupsy Abiola.

While is seems obvious someone with her job title might say this about her industry, Abiola went on to convince me this might be the case by filling me in on Hangar 51, the startup accelerator run by IAG which gives startups an opportunity to work closely with people and companies in the aviation sector to see if their businesses could fit into the space.

IAG has several different businesses under its banner, including airlines, loyalty and logistics, and Abiola pointed out in some cases a business may have been tried and tested in another sector already, and some come to Hangar 51 to see if the idea has other use cases.

She said: “It’s a short space of time for them to explore the opportunities they might be able to have with businesses such as our own. It’s the beginning of some really meaningful conversations that the entrepreneurs and their product teams can have about what it takes to be and scale within a group like ours and within and industry like ours.”

The programme itself was launched in 2016, and is hosted in Madrid and Barcelona in collaboration with Iberia, Vueling and IAG Cargo.

The 10 week accelerator programme is designed to help startups develop their technology businesses, test them in the context of the aviation industry and potentially scale them globally.

The participants will then have a Demo Day where they can show their tech to those who matter – Abiola told me at least three or four CEOs from the various companies under IAG’s banner attend.

The hope of the startups, alongside the input of senior professionals already in the sector, is the opportunity for further support and funding to help them grow their businesses.

Applications can be submitted under one of seven categories including airport operations and logistics, future of customer interaction, disruption management, future cargo logistics, sustainability, new products and services, and wildcard.

Abiola told me the programme gets hundreds of applicants that are whittled down to 10 – and the programme is picky.

So picky, in fact, she told me the programme is actually harder to get on to than it is to get into Harvard.

But the benefits seem obvious – while most accelerators boast facetime with people in the industry, Abiola claimed in many cases this may mean a few meetings or hours with people in a firm.

Hangar 51 allows entrepreneurs to work really closely with teams within the business, and they have access to people “from c-suite all the way down”.

Of those who have been part of the programme over the last three years, five companies have received investment from IAG.

Businesses who have been through the accelerator in the past have developed technologies such as virtual reality for in-flight entertainment, a block-chain powered check in service and a suite of chatbots tailored to the travel sector.

But of course, there’s something in it for IAG too – much like other accelerator programmes, it’s an opportunity for IAG to keep an eye out for fresh technologies and see if the aviation sector makes a good use case for them.

Abiola said: “Over that 10 weeks we really road test their technology, incorporate into the business, see what value we can get from it, and devise a plan if its working of how we can take that particular technological innovation forward.

“Our aim is to, first and foremost, do mutual learnings and road test these businesses, and we expect that not everyone is going to end up working with us or is going to be a decent fit, but it’s a good opportunity.”

Applications for Hangar 51’s most recent cohort are open until 2 August, after which 40 applicants will be invited to a pitch day on 3 September. Successful applicants will start the programme in late September.

Abiola summarised: “There are huge opportunities in aviation, it’s crazy.”

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