Bruno Gutierres is founder and head of Airbus Bizlab, a global aerospace accelerator program in Toulouse, France, Hamburg ,Germany and Bengaluru, India that includes both startups and “intrapreneurs” who work at the aerospace giant. While many large corporations have launched accelerator programs Airbus is integrating the products of an unusually high number of projects that pass through the two-year-old Bizlab program — 14 out of 33. Gutierres spoke to The Innovator recently about Bizlab’s approach.
Q: The future of transportation will be very different: one filled with autonomous cars, flying taxis, hyperloop style trains and — if Elon Musk is right — travel by rocket between any two cities anywhere in the world in under 50 minutes. How will Airbus reinvent itself and its products to adapt to this very different future and what role does BizLab play in creating that vision?
BG: Innovation is part of our DNA, since the beginning of its history Airbus has been looking at ways of innovating. The way Airbus has segmented our innovation is moonshots with some projects handled by A³, the advanced projects and partnerships outpost in Silicon Valley. A³ is the birthplace of Project Vahana, (a single-passenger, self-piloted electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft). But we also need short term innovation and by that I mean innovation that is able to be realized within one to three years, which is short term in our industry. That is the role of BizLab. Most of the time we are looking for projects that could enrich or seed the long term strategy but in a short time frame. We will not manage the overall autonomous vehicle project, for example, but we will manage feeders to the global projects.
Q: What sort of short-term projects is Bizlab looking for?
BG: Just because it is short term doesn’t mean Bizlab startups are not disruptive. They are definitely disruptive, they help us create additional value for our platforms. For example one of our companies, bizpay, allows consumers to buy airline tickets with installments. They are offering a different business model for airlines, giving the opportunity for the consumer to buy tickets and split the payment like a loan.
Q: How is Bizlab structured?
BG: The starting point was our being able to open our innovation, being able to work with startups to have access to new skills and new business models. At the same time we wanted to ritualize our internal innovation, so we have had a dual mission from the beginning. Some of the benchmarking I did on companies that decide to create accelerators made me realize how difficult it is to internalize, to create value through the startups you accelerate. After you accelerate them how do you impact your core business? How will this startup be accepted by your internal innovation people? The concern a big company has is that by working with startups the message that is conveyed is ‘we are not good enough’ so the risk is that there will be internal opposition, which immediately creates an obstacle to the integration of the startup within the core business.
Q: So how do you get around that problem?
BG: A beginning of an answer we found is through our hybrid concept. We host intrapreneurs as well to help them develop their innovative ideas in startup mode. We mix them, on a day-to-day basis, with startups. By doing that you have a permanent bridge between internal innovation and external innovation. There is no rejection because Bizlab is part of internal operations as well. There is natural flow of internal people which are coming to the Bizlab, living with the startups, and becoming part of the community.
Q: How does it work with internal employees. Are they on loan to the accelerator or work there part-time?
BG: During the acceleration program they are 100% dedicated to their project. At the end we decide what will be the right vehicle to commercialize the market. Here everything is open. We can reintegrate the project into one of the existing departments and create a new business line. A second option is we create a spinoff that is 100% or some percentage owned by Airbus. The third option is we can decide that finally this project is too far from the core business and we don’t want to be a part of the future development so the entrepreneur can opt to create their own company. All options are open when they join the six month acceleration program. We do not decide at the beginning. That would be a major mistake.
Q: How many intrapreneurs and entpreneurs have been through the program so far?
BG: We opened in March 2015 in Toulouse, in Hamburg a short time later and a third one in early December of that year in Bengaluru. We do one six month program per year so now we are just starting season three. Bizlab is not PR tool. We don’t want to announce that we are working with 50 startups and not be in a position to give them the right support. This is why we are limiting each batch to between five and seven startups at each location, so between 18 and 21 maximum. We really want to provide them with a high level of support — It is very important. This is maybe one of the reasons we have such a good record. After two seasons involving a total of 33 startups we have 14 deep collaborations.
Q: What kind of success rate do you have with the intrapreneurs?
BG: We are only two years and a half old, which is pretty young, but several internal projects are close to spin-out — at least three of them will be coming on the market in the weeks and months to come.
Q: In what ways does working with startups benefit the intrapreneurs?
BG: Intrapreneurs at Airbus are very skilled, and most of the time they are technical experts. They know very well the technology and are very techno minded. What is important for them in being mixed up with entrepreneurs is we are saying all the time ‘take care of customers , have a look to what the market is, listen carefully to your market, do not believe that the technology is the most important thing.’ We say that all the time but it is better when they see how the entrepreneurs approach markets and the quick result these guys have. We do not try to create internal competition within the platforms but nevertheless it happens because they see how fast the startups are able to immediately move into a different product and not be married to one technology proposal. That is the main benefit for our intrapreneurs.
Q: And what is the main benefit for the entrepreneurs of mixing with the intrapreneurs?
BG: On the entrepreneurs side most of the time these startup guys are used to doing things [RS1] at their speed and in their own way. It is one thing to pitch investors or accelerators — it can be a lot of fun — but you can not do things in the same way in front of procurement people. The level of expectation of a big company is far higher and requires rigor. Working side by side with intrapreneurs helps startups to design the proper offer — they can test it immediately. It is easy to say ‘what do you think if I present it this way’ and get an immediate answer about what a big company like us will expect. In addition to that the startups benefit from the intrapreneurs’ networks. Each intrapreneur has his own network and he makes it available for the startups.
Q: Do you believe that this mixing of intrapreneurs and extrapreneurs is a key part of your program’s success?
BG: Definitely. We have been lucky with the startups we have selected but I strongly believe this hybrid concept is a big part of the success. While I am happy to share this experience with other companies they should not take this as a recipe or a miracle approach. They have to find the best approach for their own markets.