Hannah Kiel, Starburst Accelerator

7 February 2018

When your start-up is established, how do you go about scaling up? One option is to join an accelerator programme, which can help provide you with access to seed funding from business angels and venture capital firms, as well as strengthening your key stakeholders.

At the New Space Europe conference we spoke to Hannah Kiel who works as a Strategy & Innovation Senior Consultant and Accelerator Manager at Starburst. Starburst helps lead the start-up revolution by redefining the aerospace industry and accelerating the future of the industry through innovation.

Hannah Kiel. Credit: Starburst

Briefly tell me a little about your background and involvement at Starburst Accelerator?

Starburst Accelerator was founded in Paris in 2012, and became operational in 2013. I was there right from the beginning. The idea came out of consulting work that we did with the corporate world and defence industry. They were getting more and more interested in being introduced and working with start-ups. So I joined Starburst at the very beginning of its accelerator activities. My background is in business innovation and growth subjects and prior to Starburst, I was at PWC. The subject of innovation really intrigued me, and I realised it was going to be a game-changer in the industry. Although my involvement in aerospace is due to chance, I am excited about the potential and can see that there is a lot of development in innovation.

How does Starburst support different start-ups?

Starburst primarily supports different startups in business development. We feel there is a phase when they really need support, post-prototype development, but before real revenues or customer acquisition. This is usually a phase underestimated by a start-up. It may take some time in aerospace and this is the phase we want to accelerate, which is why we call this programme an accelerator. We really want to help the start-ups find the right people and companies to start work with them.

Starburst is now also building up an investment arm which started first investments (Natilus, for more info see: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/as-autonomous-technology-transforms-the-global-freight-sector-natilus-attracts-more-seed-investment-from-starburst-ventures-seraph-group-gelt-vc-outpost-capital-and-draper-associates-300554341.html)

How can start-ups apply to Starburst? Do they have to be of a particular (technology readiness level (TRL)?

We are looking at start-ups that are considered “mature”. More mature for us means at least a TRL of about 5 or 6 if possible. They should have something to demonstrate such as a prototype to our corporate partners. They usually need that to engage with the start-ups and user cases. They should already have a minimum viable product (MVP) in place.

What in particular does Starburst look for in a start-up to bring them into the accelerator programme?

Anything that is interesting and innovative in technology, of course. For example, we also like to see cross-industry technologies from other industries that already have revenue and could perhaps be applicable to aerospace. We can help them get the network and to meet the right people. We are really open to any kinds of technology. There are no limitations but the start-up should be innovative and could help a corporate partner.

Starburst is not just based in Europe (Paris, Munich) but around the world?

Yes, in Europe we have offices in Paris in Munich but we try to work much wider than just those cities in Europe. Outside of Europe we have offices in Los Angeles, Montreal, Singapore, and now Sao Paolo. We feel we are a global player. We want to cover all the European countries. In December we will be in London at the Royal Aeronautical Society. Last week we were in the Netherlands. So we try to partner up in Europe with other partners who also want to grow the start-up scene in this field.

Starburst Accelerator supports over 300 startups globally. Credit: Starburst

What do you think are the biggest challenges for start-ups entering your accelerator programme?

It’s told a lot that you have to focus on the customer and have a business case but what we really see is that even though they have great technologies and there are a lot of projects going on that are really super-interesting and not known yet. I’d say the biggest challenge is for start-ups to communicate to the right people who need to know about their work and to have more of a business perspective to really bring about the business case to see a use case for a potential partner. This is still something that is challenging for sure because you need to do something much more than the technology and really sell yourself. I think this is a strength of the U.S. and is an example from which Europeans can learn.

Do you find there is a big difference in culture between start-ups in the U.S. and Europe, for example?

Yes, there are. It’s funny; I actually spoke to a member from Audacy (startup in space communications) earlier on. He’s American but was born in Germany. He was saying the investment logic in Europe seems very different from the US. Investors ask completely different questions. It’s not like in the U.S. where you would invest in a team and the people where technology is not as important. Here in Europe it’s still quite traditional: Investors want to see the product, and they want to feel secure in terms of what the startups are doing before any communication is done. I think this is also what holds us back in terms of getting investment and getting some businesses going or to have a bigger vision. It was also discussed in a panel earlier that often in Europe we think smaller and think in steps. There could perhaps be a bit more of a vision for the big picture.

How do you think practically we can improve that in Europe? What mechanisms could, say, governments put into place?

Good examples, I think, are a good way, which we do have and will have. In Europe we see a lot of start-ups that scale and reach potential and the point they can leverage potential. I’m thinking for example, Swissto12 who are now looking to go more global to go to the U.S. even. Those kinds of examples will bring also the hope or the mentality a bit more to Europe. It’s not in every case the right approach and maybe it is good to go step-by-step to validate before you go a step further. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s also important to believe in a big project, particularly in aerospace.

From your perspective are there any particular technology trends in aerospace that are attracting investors?
Yes, that’s a difficult question as investors have different areas of interest. What we see from a Starburst point of view is a lot of technologies that are “hot” right now such as electrical propulsion, 3D printing, antennas and satellite constellations such as ICEYE. ICEYE is particularly inspiring. We had them speak in Munich as a keynote and in addition to being a pitch to our corporates, we got great feedback from those not in their sector who found them very interesting. It’s a great project.

As an accelerator programme, what would you say makes Starburst unique?

First of all, we are the most established and developed accelerator for aerospace. This was something that was really important for Starburst from the very beginning because aerospace and defence are markets that need a lot of expertise and experience, which we have. I don’t mean to say other industries don’t require experience, but aerospace has many nuances and sensitivities that others might not. Second, unlike other tech incubators and accelerators, we are really focused on more mature startups, beyond the “idea” stage. This makes us ideal partners for our corporate clients who need something more tangible that they can develop, and our startups can also count on us as business development partners.

Last, I think what also makes us unique is our global reach and philosophy of building an innovation ecosystem that really connects everyone: start-ups with start-ups, start-ups with universities, start-ups with corporate partners, start-ups with investors – and we’re really open. We are happy to work with different start-ups and attend a lot of different events so we can leverage those links.

Finally, what advice would you give to start-ups interested in joining your accelerator?

Come and present your project. We are always happy to learn about new technologies, and even if you aren’t a fit immediately to pitch to our corporate clients, we could perhaps help in other business development endeavours, and we are also interested in hearing your ideas as you continue your exciting journey. So for anyone who has an innovative technology and is looking for business contacts, Starburst is the right point of contact.

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