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How the pandemic transformed IAG’s Hangar 51 accelerator

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have had to take a different approach during the pandemic – Dupsy Abiola, head of global innovation at IAG, explains how IAG transformed its Hangar 51 accelerator during the coronavirus outbreak

In the beginning of 2020, the International Airlines Group (IAG) had just completed a successful round of its startup accelerator Hangar 51.

By the time the group began planning the next cohort, the world shut down as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most companies had two options – wait and see what happened, or adapt to the current environment and try something new.

“I think, there tends to be a knee jerk response to things sometimes where it’s like, if in doubt, just shut down absolutely everything,” said Dupsy Abiola, head of global innovation at IAG.

“But I think there are some things which are supposed to be intrinsic to who you are or the spirit of what you’re trying to do, and I would say that our programme and opening ourselves up, looking for ways that we can solve challenges,” she said. “I think that always remains.

“Nothing was easy last year for anyone. But I think sometimes you have to put down the battleground for things that are important.

“This is the mindset that we have, we are going to innovate, we’re going to evolve.”

Pandemic innovation

Many organisations have used technology to adapt and innovate as a result of the pandemic – using retail as an example as customers were forced online, retailers in many cases came up with more innovative ways to offer customer service remotely.

Usually, IAG’s Hangar 51 accelerator consists of a detailed selection process, an applications shortlisting week, an in-person pitching event, and then in-person and physical events over a 10 week period where teams involved in the accelerator have physical access to stakeholders across the group.

Giving some examples of activities the teams usually take part in, Abiola said some might join an IAG member company in an airfield to properly test their ideas, undergo feasibility studies, or even working outside the COOs office and talk to him every day.

Choosing to do the accelerator online meant trying to create the same amount of collaboration without the physical interaction, and while this was very different to previous years it actually meant more members of IAG and teams from more regions, such as Australia, got involved for the first time.

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While the programme received fewer applications than previous year, partially because IAG couldn’t recruit for the 2020 accelerator through the usual in-person events it would attend, the teams that did apply had more funding and more established technologies than applicants in previous years, meaning more teams than usual were selected for pitches.

To accommodate the increase in the numbers of teams taking part, as well as the virtual nature of the programme, pitch day turned into pitch week, and more teams were selected for 2020 than in  previous years.

Abiola said: “We spoke to the business, and we, as expected, had a lot of encouragement from all of the teams in fact, we have more of our operating companies across the group being involved than we ever have.”

Using technology to meet online, the programme took on the same structure, including shortlisting meetings, pitch days and chats with stakeholders.

While Abiola admitted it wasn’t the same as “sitting across the way from someone” or “being based in Barcelona or Madrid for a couple of weeks” it meant more people could dial into calls on short notice or spontaneously, and the 2020 accelerator ended up being the biggest cohort the programme has ever had.

The virtual programme also saw the accelerator adopt many categories poignant in pandemic times – for example cyber security and connected operations, two types of technology heavily relied upon as the world became remote.

The give and take

Not only has IAG learnt from the new way of working, going on to launch the most recent Hangar 51 Accelerator to take place again online in 2021, Abiola explained part of the point of these programmes is to help larger businesses learn from smaller more agile businesses.

She said, of the startups and scaleups that take part: “They’ve got so much energy, they come in and they can teach us about what it is to be agile and what it is to be entrepreneurial in new ways. So we learn from one another and that’s a big part of the programme.”

The 2020 programme had a huge focus on sustainability, with the cohort ending with IAG investing in hydrogen powered aeroplane company ZeroAvia, a startup that has also received funding from Bill Gates’ fund Breakthrough Energy Venture.

For those with ideas and technologies that easily fit into one part of the group, for example British Airways or Iberia, there may be an opportunity to work with another airline down the road.

Even when companies who take part in Hangar 51 don’t receive financial backing, there is still a lot to be learnt on both sides.

Test lab

The fast and flexible nature of startups can seem “like magic” to a larger company where so many rules and systems are in place that can often get in the way of, or slow down, innovation – while IAG has an internal test lab for R&D, it can also be helpful to see what smaller companies are doing and how they are doing it.

Abiola said: “We try and make sure it’s not just a ‘Thank you very much and goodbye’ when it comes to the accelerator programme. The point of us inviting you in and all of the energy that goes in is that we will 100% on both sides learn a lot, whether something goes through or not. We learn from what happens.

“And then, if things are working, we have a structured way to expedite things through because anyone who’s tried to get into an enterprise, like a large enterprise, will know that sometimes the processes can be very hard for a new business or starting emerging technologies.”

This year’s accelerator

Applications for the 2021 accelerator are open until August 31, with Abiola claiming the group expects to approach the accelerator with flexibility.

“This year we have all the templates and all the stuff that we’ve used, we learned from last year,” she said. “We’re going to embed that into this year which is great. If the situation changes and we can be together in some ways, we’ll see whether we can attempt that.

“But we know that we have a process that works even when we can’t be face to face, which is great. We’ve taken this as a way to improve our own playbook so it gives us our own sense of resilience around what we’re able to achieve.”

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