Travel startups face long odds, but the lucky ones have a champion in Suzanna Chiu, who has spearheaded an array of programs at travel technology giant Amadeus that have been helping startups thrive. The industry needs more folks like her.
Hundreds of the travel industry’s most-forward-thinking executives will gather for our third annual Skift Forum Europe in London on April 30. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Focusing on responsible travel practices and other key issues, Skift Forum Europe 2019 will take place at Tobacco Dock in London. The Forum will feature speakers, including CEOs and top executives from British Airways, IHG, Thomas Cook, Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Silversea, Uber, and many more.
The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in Europe and beyond.
Five years ago, only a handful of travel companies supported mentorship and investment programs for startups. Today we count more than 20 incubators and accelerators backed by major travel companies. Think of easyJet’s effort in London and Marriott’s twin initiatives in the U.S. and Europe.
Arguably the most ambitious commitment to startups has come from travel technology giant Amadeus IT Group. Through its corporate venture arm, Amadeus Ventures, the company has introduced an array of programs that go beyond mere investment to help startups thrive.
In March, the person spearheading Amadeus’ nearly four-year-old efforts, Katherine Grass, left the company.
That’s shifted the spotlight to Suzanna Chiu, Head of Startups, who has brought the external innovation program from its infancy into what some might say is an integral part of the company’s business.
The Amadeus effort has a few parts. The funding program, for instance, focuses on finding startups working on technologies that are relevant for travel. A partnership program helps connect early-stage startups with mentorship opportunities, helps the startup refine pitches, and seeks commercial opportunities.
What follows is an edited version of a recent Skift interview by phone with Chiu.
Skift: What are some of your ways of collaborating with startups?
Suzanna Chiu: As of October 2017, we have three “external innovation programs,” with some global and some regional efforts. Amadeus Ventures invests in early-stage startups worldwide for strategic value.
Amadeus for Developers will launch in the second half of 2018, focusing on providing easier access for startups to Amadeus’ technology and data.
Amadeus Explore will be a new collaboration program that is looking to partner with companies that are young but are probably not early-stage and that want to bring their mature technologies into a broader commercial sphere. We’ll launch it within the next six months.
Skift: Amadeus used to have an Amadeus Next program focusing on mentorship of startups in Asia Pacific. But that ended a year ago. What’s next for Next?
Chiu: Amadeus Next was more focused around energizing community building than in investment, and parts of our learnings from it will shape Amadeus Explore, which will be open to companies worldwide. Amadeus Next has not ended, the initiative is still running and will just form part of the Amadeus Explore program.
Chiu: We want to invest in startups that have healthy business models with technologies that will make a difference in the market and that will eventually bring financial returns.
With Cabify, we were actually looking to understand how the on-demand model would change the ground transportation landscape within our domain of corporate managed travel.
Skift: Is giving back to the startup ecosystem important to you?
Chiu: Yes, it’s most important. I would say about one-third of the time of my team is focused on extracting portfolio value.
That means spending a lot of time working inside companies and working with the stakeholders to find innovative use cases. We want to bring the startup’s services to our solutions team and commercial partners.
With Flyr, one of our investments, which uses data to make it financially feasible to lock in the price of a flight today for a purchase tomorrow, we are helping the founders by making introductions to our customer base.
That will help the startups grow faster. We also contribute back industry knowledge to the venture capital firms who aren’t familiar with the pain points of the travel space but who can bring in fresh insights and capital.
Skift: What types of travel startups are you most interested in?
Chiu: Since last summer, Amadeus has focused its investment activity on a half-dozen “themes,” including messaging platforms; operations and performance; improved conversion of travel lookers into bookers with artificial intelligence and other deep learning; blockchain; disruptive models, such as on-demand mobile services; and extended content.
For example, earlier this year we closed an investment in CrowdVision, which uses automation and sophisticated computing to track people in crowded areas. That can help airports plan operations more efficiently, which is relevant to one of our key customer segments.
Skift: One company you work with is Civic, a blockchain identity management solution. Tell us about that.
Chiu: We see blockchain, with use cases around security and identity, as having significant potential for the travel industry.
Skift: On average, in the U.S., women founders receive less than 3 percent of total venture capital dollars and women of color receive only 0.2 percent. What needs to happen for these stats to change?
Chiu: There’s a gender imbalance in the VC world for sure.
VCs also tend to invest in people who have made it before with track records at starting and running companies before and that they know what pitfalls to avoid. But the side effect of that is that VCs get in a cycle of investing in the same male founders over and over.
There’s nothing wrong with betting on established talent. We do that ourselves. But VCs need to introduce more female founders into the mix.
We’re very proud that we now have female CEOs at three of the companies in our small portfolio of investments.
Similarly, overall hiring female professionals into venture funds as executives is critical for the sector. We have a lot of females on our team here at Amadeus.
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Photo credit: Suzanna Chiu, head of startups for travel technology company Amadeus, talks to a crowd about one of the company's corporate venture capital investments in Civic, a specialist in identity management using blockchain. Amadeus