At InnovationX — an innovation business unit of the aerospace giant Airbus — about 60 globally distributed team members operate almost entirely autonomously, according to the group’s leader Christian Lindener. Senior leaders tend to only get involved if a company that the group is building and spinning out runs into a roadblock, or needs help with a specific challenge, like scaling a startup.
The old process, Lindener says, included collecting many ideas, maturing them, and taking ideas to a venture board with senior leaders. “At the end, not many ideas would go through because it’s not…[the senior leaders’] job to rate or give a green light to venture ideas,” Lindener explains. “We changed the process to being fully autonomous and building [a company] until we hit the wall… That’s thanks to [our] CTO [Grazia Vittadini, who Lindener reports to].”
The InnovationX startup accelerator has spun off around 11 companies, he says, all related to the future of urban air mobility. For example, he has worked with companies that are creating products like flying taxis (as well as others that make the landing platforms flying taxis will rely on).
Turning 300 Ideas per Year Into Two or Three Funded Tangible Innovations
Each year, Lindener receives about 300 ideas for potential new companies or innovations — ultimately funding only two or three per year — making the decision based on the feasibility of the ideas and the relevance to Airbus. From there, they “follow the normal innovation process — ideation, validation, and then scaling growth.” Designers typically get involved during the prototyping phase, “which comes after ideation… This is where we sit together with industrial designers and then design the demonstrator or prototype. The same applies to digital products, where we have UX [and] UI designers.”
And typically, the group moves fast, too. From finding a solution to completing a proof of concept to creating a minimum viable company or product, the timeline could consume just 12 to 24 months. Another 12 to 48 months may then pass between founding and funding the company to bringing it to scale, Lindener says. The longest part of the process involves determining Airbus’s exit strategy, which in a best-case scenario would take up to two years — but in a longest case scenario, could take up to 10, he says, depending on whether or not they decide to go through with the IPO process.
Aligning Innovations with Corporate Strategy
When it comes to prioritizing investments, Lindener says he relies on company strategy. So, if Airbus makes a goal to reach zero emissions from new aircraft by a certain year, “we would need to anticipate the steps to really make that happen.” So in that case, he says, he’d look at companies working with hydrogen technologies or energy and utilities.
“We try to anticipate the roadblocks,” he says.
While the pandemic didn’t impact his team severely as they were already primarily remote, he says, it did give an opportunity to prune his portfolio and shift resources to the most promising projects. This portfolio “cleanup” resulted in progress in companies working in sustainable aviation — a focal point for the company.
Working Without Concrete Metrics
The biggest challenge for Lindener at InnovationX — and one of his biggest responsibilities — is acting as a translator between his team and senior leadership when necessary. Although his group benefits from autonomy, he still has to occasionally act as a reality check for the expectations of senior leaders. Because each of his ventures is at a different maturity level, he struggles to deliver the concrete financial metrics that leaders expect.
“You really need time to validate this stuff, and what senior leaders normally expect are immediate results — quarter to quarter, financial year to financial year,” he says. “But with innovation, it’s just impossible, because you need some time to experiment to validate. … The biggest challenge [is] running [this unit] without having concrete results because these will come in [later] years.”
For this reason, Lindener believes that it is up to him to “shield the team out of all these discussions so that they can properly work,” without “having all the politics and budget discussions on their backs.”