Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Generation Start-up: Hub71-backed firm bets on sustainable products for airlines

The Concept plans to raise $1m to boost expansion and help solve waste management issues in space

Yadhushan Mahendran, co-founder and chief executive of The Concept, says less expensive more sustainable solutions for the aviation industry are timely, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on airlines. Courtesy The Concept
Yadhushan Mahendran, co-founder and chief executive of The Concept, says less expensive more sustainable solutions for the aviation industry are timely, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on airlines. Courtesy The Concept

Simple ideas can make a big difference. This is what the founders of The Concept, an Abu Dhabi based start-up believe in and are trying to build on.

The company is developing innovative products like a light weight tray for meals as well as other catering products for airlines that reduce costs and improve hygiene. With the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, that's a compelling value proposition.

“We deliver sustainable products using hardware and technology innovation,” Yadhushan Mahendran, co-founder and chief executive of The Concept, says. “Our first product that got us a lot of traction was an inflight meal tray that cabin crew serve food with in the aircraft.”

The company completely “re-engineered the meal tray” and reduced its weight by 30 per cent using sustainable material like recycled water bottles that can help generate $1.5 million in fuel savings for an airline annually.

The Concept’s meal tray is a “big selling point” during Covid 19, Mr Mahendran says, as the aviation industry looks to reduce costs to deal with the crisis.

“Our product is the world’s first anti-microbial inflight food tray," he explains. "It fights any microbes and strains of the coronavirus. We are also producing multiple catering products for airlines and all our products are anti-microbial.”

The company is also adding sensors to meal trays to determine how much food each passenger consumes during a journey. That will help airlines reduce food waste.

Every year, $975m worth of untouched food and beverages end up in landfills from the aviation industry, he says.

“The tray becomes a smart device and ... the airlines can understand what passengers prefer to eat when they are travelling from one destination to the other,” Mr Mahendran adds.

The company launched the product in the second quarter of 2020 and is currently in a tender with two airlines from the Middle East and two from Europe. The value of the contract is $15m. Russian airlines have also expressed interest.

Reducing costs has become more important for airlines as revenue slumps due to travel restrictions to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Airline revenues will halve to $419 billion in 2020 due to the crisis, according to the International Air Transport Association. Many airlines across the globe have either furloughed their workers or cut jobs to deal with the impact of the pandemic.

The Concept, which is part of tech accelerator Hub71 at Abu Dhabi Global Market, aims to further expand its services and is targeting the space industry.

Waste is a problem in the shuttle or in the international space station because they can’t get rid of it, so we are trying to develop solutions for that

Yadhushan Mahendran, co-founder The Concept

“We are trying to work with the Middle Eastern space agencies to solve waste management issues in space,” he says. “Waste is a problem in the shuttle or in the international space station because they can’t get rid of it, so we are trying to develop solutions for that.”

The company, which was founded by Mr Mahendran along with Maria Sobh and Muhammad Rijal in 2017 has so far secured $250,000 worth of investments. This includes a private angel investor and Intelak, the UAE’s first aviation-oriented incubator. It also received funding from the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre's Sheraa incubator programme, and from Mubadala Investment Company through The Gothams-Hub71 Accelerator programme. It is planning to raise a further $1m to boost expansion and develop new products.

The Gothams programme focuses on building the next generation of aerospace and defence start-ups as the UAE eyes a dominant position in the sector. The country launched a new defence organisation named Edge earlier this year by merging 24 companies into one.

Being part of Hub71 with incentives for two years including free housing, office space and health insurance for up to five employees is helping the company to grow even during the pandemic, Mr Mahendran says.

“They [Hub71] really understand start-ups constrained by budgets and they have a specific way of working and they have a large network of companies in Abu Dhabi, which they can easily put us in touch with.”

Yadhushan Mahendran (left)  and Maria Sobh of The Concept at Hub 71 on Al Maryah Island. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Yadhushan Mahendran (left) and Maria Sobh of The Concept at Hub 71 on Al Maryah Island. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Hub71 was set up in March 2019 by the Abu Dhabi government, Mubadala Investment Company, Abu Dhabi Global Market, Microsoft and SoftBank. It is a flagship initiative of the Dh50bn Ghadan 21 economic stimulus programme.

“Our goal is to expand in Abu Dhabi and trying to build our team and potentially have a Dubai office, and in the near future somewhere in North America as well.”

The company is planning to hire new software developers from January as it focuses on diversifying its product offering.

It is also looking to work with micro-mobility companies such as scooter and car-sharing firms to provide them with anti-microbial products for touch points like steering wheels, scooter handles and scooter buttons.

“The hardware and technology that we built can be used in other industries as well and can be used in medical technology and already got traction from one of the leading medical companies in the UAE," Mr Mahendran says. "It can even be used in schools and cafeterias.”

Q&A with Yadhushan Mahendran, co-founder of The Concept

1. What successful start-ups do you wish you could have started?

A company that I truly admire currently is SpaceX. The way that they have reimagined transportation to space in a sustainable, reusable manner with the overall goal of reducing space transportation cost is amazing. I truly admire them mainly because Elon Musk and his team must have really believed in themselves to do something so revolutionary that most people thought was impossible.

2. What is your vision for the company?

My vision, or the collective vision of all the founders at The Concept is to be a company that has paved ways to create sustainable products in multiple verticals through the mix and medium of sustainable hardware and data collection technologies. To be at the forefront, our vision is to introduce our own effective closed-loop manufacturing and recycling facility within the Middle East region, specifically within the UAE, which will enable our ecosystem to create unique circular economy products that are made in the UAE. We want to create sustainability locally.

3. What is your mantra for success?

My mantra for success is not being afraid to ask for help when you require it.

4. Where do you see yourself and The Concept in five years?

In five years, I see The Concept and myself working closely with SME’s, corporates and government entities around the Middle East and specifically in the UAE to develop products and services that are sustainably driven and financially feasible. I see us shaping the post Covid-19 ecosystem of sustainability in the region.

5. How do you envision a post-Covid 19 world?

I envision a post-Covid19 world to be one that will allow space for a fresh new room for innovation, with new industries popping up as it has already started to. A post-Covid-19 world in my eyes will also be one that will be heavily automated, meaning physical experiences may end up becoming a niche or luxury.

6. What new skills have you learnt in the process of starting the company?

In the process of starting The Concept, I have learnt a few new skills including how to engage with various stakeholders, project management, how to convert an idea to reality, but the most important trait has been to be able to make bold decisions regardless of the size of the company or stakeholder that I am dealing with.

Updated: November 23, 2020 03:46 PM

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