And as the managing director of operations and partnerships at JetBlue Technology Ventures notes, the VC arm’s investments aren’t just focused directly on airline use cases. “Everybody's customer in the travel space is the same customer at the end of the day,” says Burr.
When JetBlue Airways’ board decided to create a venture capital investment arm in 2016, the primary goal was to solidify the carrier’s position as a company willing to take risks to ensure it was at the front of the latest advancements in aviation.
With 4,500 startups in its database and 24 of those entities having received funding from JTV over the past three years, keeping pace with the changes in aviation tech means sometimes looking beyond the specific needs of airlines generally and its parent company specifically, said Amy Burr, JTV’s managing director of operations and partnerships, during her appearance at two sessions at May’s Aviation Festival Americas conference in Miami.
“When we say ‘travel,’ we mean ‘the entire travel ecosystem’ – not just companies that are aviation-focused,” Burr told Kambr Media after her roundtable and panel sessions on innovation and alliances in travel tech. “Our goal is to improve the future of travel, hospitality, and transportation, and our five investment themes reflect that.
Burr joined JTV in May 2018. Her interest in startups was sparked during her tenure at Virgin America about 14 years ago as one of the original founders of the company.
She held a variety of posts over her tenure at Virgin America across strategy, corporate program leadership, commercial and revenue development, and technology areas including eCommerce, reservations systems and guest products.
Her final assignment at the carrier before joining JTV was to steer Virgin America’s integration following its merger with Alaska Airlines.
Prior to her role at Virgin America, Burr spent 4 years at Continental Airlines in revenue management and corporate development.
In surveying the increasingly level of travel technology investment activity, alongside the emergence of platform companies promising to seamlessly bring machine learning, artificial intelligence, and personalization to travel and hospitality, Burr shared her thoughts on why some potential partners fit in with JTV’s philosophy. She also explained her intrigue regarding the potential of accounting blockchain in an aviation/travel context.
Kambr Media: What is JetBlue Technology Ventures’ mission today and how has it evolved?
Amy Burr: JetBlue Technology Ventures’ mission is to invest in and partner with early stage startups at the intersection of travel and technology. When we say “travel,” we mean “the entire travel ecosystem” – not just companies that are aviation-focused. Our goal is to improve the future of travel, hospitality, and transportation, and our five investment themes reflect that. We definitely have some investments that are more aviation-focused, but there are a lot that are not.
At the Aviation Festival in May, you discussed the criteria, or “themes,” that guided JTV’s investment and partnership strategy. How are those themes arranged?
Our five investment themes are used to guide our decision making in terms of what we consider when making an investment.
1. The first theme is delivering a seamless customer experience. That's everything along the customer journey. It’s a recognition that customers want a fully seamless experience from the moment they leave their house, through the airport, travel on an airline, go to a resort or a hotel, and anything else along the way before they return home. We're always looking for technologies to make that entire experience better.
2. The second theme is structured around innovation in customer service and hospitality. We think of this as solving how companies can service their guests better. The focus is more the backend innovation that allows employees of a company to do their jobs better and provide better customer service.
3. The third theme explores the future of maintenance and operations. This one tends to be a little bit more aviation-focused, in some ways, but in general it’s “operations-focused.” This theme can include topics including how well a company tracks assets or how autonomy and electrification will change airport vehicles or how drones could improve maintenance operations around an airfield.
4. The fourth theme is centered on innovations in distribution, revenue, and loyalty. Everybody is looking for the next phase of how you distribute your product and what benefits revenue directly – and how you retain customers through smart loyalty and engagement programs. There are always some interesting things with loyalty going on in the travel space.
5. The last theme is more in the “moonshot” category. It involves changing how people move around the world and how regional travel will evolve. We’re looking at how electrification and autonomy will change the way people travel short distances. Will there be electric jets that focus on routes of less than a thousand miles? How could vertical take-off and landing vehicles change the ability of urban transit?
Does the wider marketplace view beyond aviation that JTV takes reflect JetBlue Airways’ own sense of its identity?
JetBlue Airways more and more thinks of itself as a travel provider, not just an airline. JetBlue has another wholly-owned subsidiary called JetBlue Travel Products to think about what sort of travel experiences are likely to resonate with customers. JetBlue Tech Ventures is the more forward-thinking, externally-focused innovation arm of JetBlue Airways. Through these subsidiaries, the airline is definitely thinking beyond just flight services.
In that vein, JetBlue Tech Ventures is about travel holistically, and that’s the basis of our international partnership program. We’re building a network of like-minded travel providers who also want to identify technologies and startups to improve their operations and the future of travel. Companies we are seeking to partner with include from airlines, airports, hospitality, and ground transportation. Everybody's customer in the travel space is the same customer at the end of the day. We're all on the same journey together. And we are looking for things that make that whole journey better for customers.
How many companies has JTV looked at and how many are currently being funded?
We’ve seen over 4,500 startups in the last three-and-a-half years and are about to announce an investment that brings our portfolio to 24 startups. Our investment team has a rigorous review and due diligence process. We look at travel tech startups as well as others from associated industries that aren't necessarily a travel company but might have a use case for travel. That discovery process with those type of startups is really fun.
Is there any timetable for how many companies JTV plans to invest in by the end of the year?
We have internal goals, of course. But it's more about what we think makes sense and fits our investment themes versus an arbitrary number of companies in our portfolio. Our sweet spot for investment in Series A, sometimes Seed or Series B. We like to see a little bit more of a minimum viable product that we believe will scale and grow and one day be useful to either JetBlue or our partner ecosystem.
How should startups pitch JetBlue Technology Ventures?
There aren’t hard and fast rules for startups to be considered for investment. They need to have a transformative and unique idea. They need to have a good team or a good plan for a team. We want to see a plan for growth and development. We want to see a plan for how they're going to take their product and use it in the travel industry, which we know can be a quirky, tough industry to integrate into with legacy systems. It’s helpful, but not required, if they've got some potential clients or customers they're trialing or engaged in a proof of concept with.
If somebody comes in with a pitch, and they don't have some of those things buttoned up, we may just keep an eye on it for now if we think it is an interesting technology with potential.
Over the past year, there have been a number of large, high-profile investments in travel tech companies. What’s your sense of the state of travel tech investments?
There’s a lot of money out there right now! There's a lot of money and resources in both venture capital and corporate venture capital, and it’s exciting to see more of it go towards travel tech. We’re grateful for our incoming deal flow, either directly or through events that we attend, such as the Aviation Festival. We attend a lot of pitch sessions and competitions, and that's how we find out a lot about a lot of these companies.
We’re also grateful for our relationships in Silicon Valley. When there's an interesting travel deal that somebody thinks we might like, they send it over to us. We have a lot of partnerships with accelerators or incubators, and they send us quite a number of interesting companies as well.
What’s driving the increased investment in travel tech?
The emergence of companies like Uber and Lyft and Airbnb and other truly transformative travel companies have changed the way people move around the world and how people plan and take vacations. Investors and developers want to be part of that, and travel companies don’t want to be left behind or disrupted.
There's a lot of interesting technologies that can transform what has traditionally been an industry locked up by legacy systems. The ability to integrate technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well blockchain and biometrics, into the industry’s traditional processes are what’s changing the game. There are a number of startups using these new technologies within travel and figuring out how to bridge the gap between newer emerging tech and old school systems.
What’s your assessment of how actionable the use of blockchain and AI are within the travel space right now? Or do you see it as promoting innovation in the future?
I see AI and machine learning as transformative technologies for travel companies now. Both are about using data better and in the travel industry, we talk a lot about how data can help us operate or sell more efficiently or improve the customer experience. Now we have companies building systems that use AI or machine learning, or both, to actually tackle how we deploy data. With these newer technologies, you can accelerate the pace of data analysis with a very specific mindset to solve a specific challenge.
As for blockchain, it's just starting to dip into travel and we’re definitely keeping an eye on relevant startups. We see distribution and loyalty as the use cases to gain traction in the more near-term. Using a distributed ledger for tracking or to house a loyalty database or payments processing is really compelling.