From concept to business: Boeing HorizonX India Innovation Challenge

a representative of Merxius, a Boeing HorizonX India Challenge winning startup

A representative of Merxius, a Boeing HorizonX India Challenge winning startup, displays its extended reality product, Red, to investors and customers during an event in August 2018.


By Ankur Kanaglekar, Strategy Director
Boeing India

Fresh, customer-oriented thinking coupled with new technologies has unlocked new business models, forever changing industries once considered too difficult to disrupt because of the high barrier to entry—like aerospace and defense.

Boeing HorizonX launched in 2017 to meet that challenge—to assess disruptive innovations and business strategies for Boeing, seek unique business opportunities for the company’s aerospace technology and make targeted investments in new ventures.

Since its inception, Boeing HorizonX has invested in more than 15 early- and growth-stage startups in areas such as autonomous systems and space-based communications.

India is a natural strategic focus for Boeing HorizonX. This country’s startup economy is thriving and one of the largest in the world. The aviation and aerospace industry in India is growing in leaps and bounds. For example, in terms of percentage growth of passenger traffic, India outpaces every other country. As India’s economy grows and incomes rise, more and more people will opt for air travel, creating a greater market not only for aircraft, but also for related product and service businesses.

Just as importantly, India has immense talent in engineering, information technology and product development, along with a rich nexus of crucial disruption “enablers.” These incubators, accelerators, government offices and policies, universities, and other research institutions form an ecosystem to nurture the innovation potential of that talent. The Boeing India Engineering Technology Center (BIETC) is a key piece in that ecosystem, as well.

With that strategic backdrop, in November 2017, on the eve of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, Boeing HorizonX launched the “India Innovation Challenge 1.0.” Boeing invited startups across India to submit innovative ideas in nine focus areas crucial to the future of aerospace and aviation, such as passenger experience, unmanned and autonomous systems, aircraft maintenance and industrial internet of things (IoT).

Boeing also encouraged its own technology teams in BIETC to participate in the challenge through an internal incubator designed to turn early-stage ideas into full business concepts that could compete with those from Indian startups. The challenge resulted in an overwhelming response from 82 startups, as well as more than 110 ideas submitted by Boeing internal teams. The ideas focused on solving India’s unique problems in aerospace and aviation, such as IoT-based solutions to optimize India’s congested airports, crowdsourced reviews for unpiloted aerial vehicle services and carbon fiber 3D printers for low-volume production.

The submissions displayed the dynamism, zeal and innovative potential in India for technology-driven market disruption. Gathering good ideas was only the first part of the challenge, as ideas are only the first step toward robust product and service offerings that can succeed in the marketplace.

For example, one of the submissions began as an airplane that could capture data by flying autonomously over industrial clusters, ports, railways and power systems to help track assets and provide workflow progress. After numerous conversations with potential customers and Boeing subject matter experts during a 90-day internal incubator program, the idea became a service offering.

Domain expertise in designing and manufacturing aerospace products and services is still nascent in India. One cannot develop successful aerospace technology, let alone the end product, without deep understanding of the aerospace engineering domain, systems engineering, program management, customers’ buying behaviors all across the value chain, the regulatory environment, and more. The challenge provided Boeing an opportunity to nurture the startup talent and ideas like this flyover data service—and helped the participants learn entrepreneurial behaviors and best practices in the real industry business environment.

In April 2019, Boeing launched another challenge, known as the BUILD (Boeing University Innovation Leadership Development) Program, targeting students and faculty across India’s engineering colleges and early stage startups. Through the BUILD Program, we want to support the virtuous cycle of students and faculty starting ventures and successful entrepreneurs working with universities to coach aspiring entrepreneurs.

The focus of this program is to minimize idea mortality. We can do that by providing resources like innovation best practices; providing subject matter expertise, tools and methods; coaching on business practices; and providing opportunity to directly work with customers. For example, Boeing HorizonX contributed elements of the internal incubator program along with an innovation curriculum for universities and startup accelerators to use. This initiative will help nurture the innovation ecosystem in small- and medium-sized cities and rural areas in India where a wealth of talent needs only support to prosper.