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UK startups are shying away from aerospace, says Boeing

Here’s how the US company is hoping to tempt more of them in

By Maija Palmer

Boeing and the UK government are trying to tempt more startups to work with the aerospace industry — a sector that can feel daunting for many — with the launch of a two-year, £2m accelerator programme.

“The barriers for entry into the aerospace industry can seem too high for startups,” says Nichola Bates at Boeing HorizonX, the company’s venture capital arm. “We know there are good technologies in the UK but are they focused on the aerospace sector? No. So we need to lower those barriers.”

“We want to see those new technologies early, not three to five years later when they have already arrived.”

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Even when startups have a general technology that could be usefully applied to aerospace, the sector, perceived as highly-regulated and slow-moving, will not necessarily be their first point of focus, says Bates. So Boeing and the UK’s government-backed Aerospace Technology Institute is hoping to incentivise them to rethink.

Boeing is looking in particular for startups working on Industry 4.0 and sustainability — which has become an increasingly big focus for travellers concerned about the high carbon footprint of air travel.

There are a number of new companies experimenting with lower-carbon fuels, such as hydrogen (for example ZeroAvia has a grant from the UK government to test a six-seater hydrogen plane), or developing fully-electric jets (Lilium, AeroMobil). Boeing is keen to stay at the forefront of new ideas (and it is worth noting that rival Airbus has been running accelerator programmes since 2015).

“The sector itself is going through a transformation and we want to see those new technologies early, not three to five years later when they have already arrived,” says Bates.

Boeing’s HorizonX venture capital programme has already been operating for two years and has invested in some 25 companies, including SparkCognition, an AI- startup which recently raised $100m in a Series C funding round, Kitty Hawk, the electric jet company backed by Google founder Larry Page, and Reaction Engines, which is creating a new air-breathing rocket engine that can propel aircraft at several times the speed of sound.

But an accelerator programme will help widen the search for new ideas even further, says Bates.

“We want to see what is out there in the market, to see ideas that are way outside of our own development plans,” says Bates.

Why an accelerator in the UK? Partly because investors have been a bit slow to back aerospace startups in the UK, says Bates. In places like Silicon Valley companies can find backing more easily, but in Europe there is a gap that corporate venture capital can fill.

“We can bring a lot more value here,” says Bates.

This is not Boeing’s only involvement in an accelerator on this side of the Atlantic. The US company is also backing Propeller Shannon, a travel technology and aviation accelerator based at Shannon airport in Ireland, together with partners like Datalex, the digital commerce company, and the Irish Aviation Authority.

Startup accelerator Ignite will deliver the UK programme. The plan is to run two cohorts of companies, with around eight to 15 companies in each cohort.

Startups chosen for the programme will receive up to £100,000 in funding, plus the usual package of mentoring and access to resources at Boeing. HorizonX takes no equity initially but reserves the right to invest in the company’s next funding round at a 20% discount.

Applications for the first cohort close on November 15.
Accelerators

Aerospace accelerator programmes

(Did we miss one? Please let us know. We will keep updating this list.)

Company Accelerator Details Duration Does the accelerator take equity?
Air France-KLM Group BigBlank Describes itself as more of a “startup studio” than a classic accelerator. Aimed at very early-stage entrepreneurs.
Seed funding of up to €800,000 per project
12-18 months
Airbus Airbus Bizlab Over the past four years, has hosted 72 start-ups at labs in four locations – Toulouse (France), Hamburg (Germany), Bangalore (India) and Madrid (Spain) 6 months
Boeing/ATI ATI Boeing accelerator 8-15 companies will be given up to £100,000 in investment. Run by Ignite 3 months BoeingX will take no equity but reserves the right to invest in the next round at a 20% discount.
EasyJet Part of theFounders Factoryaccelerator Startups get £30,000 in cash and support and mentoring valued at £220,000 6 months Founders Factory takes a 4-7% stake in the company in exchange for the programme.
Emirates Intelak Offers a cash prize of around €12,000, structured mentorship, development space at the Dubai Technology Centre 3 months No
IAG Hangar 51 Mentoring, introduction, the opportunity to build a pilot with an AIG compan 10 weeks No, but Hangar 51 reserves the right to participate in any funding rounds — taking up to 20% of equity — for two years
IATA [email protected] Will accelerate 20 to 30 startups per year, matching their solutions with industry requirements, resulting in several pilots or implementations with participating airlines involved. 3 months
Irish Aviation Authority,
Enterprise Ireland,
Boeing
Datalex
International, Aviation Services Centre and DCU Ryan Academy
Propeller Shannon 8-12 startups per cohort Companies get €45,000 investment in return for equity. There is a €15,000 participation fee, which is deducted from the investment. 4 months 7.5% equity
Singapore Airlines SIA Accelerator Programme Up to €97,000 in development funding 10 weeks

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