BA parent IAG’s new global head of innovation Dupsy Abiola speaks to Lee Hayhurst after being confirmed as a speaker at the Travolution Summit on September 26
BA parent IAG is scouring the planet for the most interesting and promising technology start-ups in travel armed with a multi-million pound investment fund to help them scale.
That’s the task facing Dupsy Abiola, the new global head of innovation at the leading airline group, who started in the role at the end of last year.
As well as spearheading IAG’s successful accelerator Hangar 51, now entering its third cycle (entries for this year close on August 5), Abiola is on the look out for early stage and seed opportunities.
Speaking as she confirmed a keynote speaking slot at this year’s Travolution Summit, Abiola said IAG is keen to nurture and support innovation in the travel tech eco-system globally.
Her scouting mission has taken her to Hong Kong and Asia and she’s a regular visitor to other innovation hot spots like Israel, Silicon Valley and European cities like London.
“We will consider a really wide range of opportunities across the digital travel space,” she said. “There are so many different opportunities that are coming.
“There are certain areas we have identified that have growth potential and there are some really exciting opportunities.
“I think about really getting to understand what technologies are unlocking value and really presenting themselves and looking at how we support bringing that value to market.”
After the first two Hangar 51 accelerators, IAG has invested in blockchain specialist vchain and trip curation app Esplorio in the UK and Volantio in Spain.
The airline group has had hundreds of firms interested in taking part in Hangar 51 as part of which they are expected to relocate to one of IAG’s headquarters for the 10-week period.
Abiola says this gives these small firms unprecedented access to the group’s businesses’ C-suite, something they would not normally expect as a small start-up.
“We are continuing to grow our ambitions in this area. We look for teams that have product-ready businesses and looking to scale and bring them into our business.
“A lot of corporates work with start-ups externally, but we really feel in order to give them focus it is beneficial to bring them in internally, which is why we are so selective.
“We are constantly being approached but we are also always actively scouring the market. We see really great things coming out of these programmes as a result.”
IAG also has a venture fund primed to provide seed backing for start-ups looking to raise funds.
Abiola said: “We understand that start-ups working with corporates is not always the easiest thing to do so we want to support the eco-system because we believe in innovation.
“There are many ways in which IAG is a frontrunner in trying to support innovation across the eco-system.
“We have reduced some of the friction associated with getting commercial contracts with some of these newer players and addressing procurement issues they come up against.”
Abiola said the types of firms IAG is on the look out for are ones that are primed to make a real impact in travel in areas like robotics and next generation artificial intelligence.
But she said the firm was also prepared to consider “non-core” areas outside of its general approach to help it move forward in facilitating the customer journey and experience.
“We think about innovation as a spectrum. There are things that are happening internally, but it would be a mistake to ignore the amazing things that are happening outside of our business.
“Whether its innovation that’s happening internally or externally we have a duty to be looking at it open-mindedly.
“I do not think there is a limit to what you can do. I don’t think you can be too ambitious when it comes to looking for technology and innovation.”
Abiola said one of the key challenges all investors in future technology are facing is the reducing timescales as computing power speeds up and costs reduce.
What used to be a five-year window for innovation is now down to about three as firms race to keep up with fundamental changes in the market and human behaviour.
Abiola, herself a trained barrister and entrepreneur with successful businesses behind her, conceded there are some natural constraints to innovation in large corporates.
“The challenge for large corporates is that their businesses are built and designed to be as they are,” she said.
“They will have natural constraints which are perfectly understandable and, in fact, necessary. The approach to innovation is different in different types of organisations.
“What I think is encouraging about IAG is we are looking at multiple different areas where we can experiment with new technology and try to be at the forefront.
“Internally, we are doing lots of great projects which we are rolling out across the group but we are also looking to support start-ups and scale-ups in terms of investment.
“Disruption is coming, so having teams that are made up of people with more traditional backgrounds and people with multiple different touchpoints is one way we are able to take a different perspective on the market.
“From everything I have seen I’m confident that we as IAG are capable of being immensely fast-moving and are able to leverage some of these opportunities.
“All corporates are designed for business as usual and have to balance innovation with the constraints specific to the industry.
“But IAG has the people and the passion to look at innovation broadly and has many people dedicated to seize on the best of what’s coming forward.”
Abiola added travel is well-placed to benefit from its access to data on the way people increasingly choose to spend their time. “People are very keen to prioritise travel,” she said.
“We are in a really important business in terms of being able to give customer access to life-changing experiences as well as access to the globe.
“That’s a large part of why we get out of bed and why I’m excited to be in this space to see innovation and be part of making that happen.”