Boosting passenger experience and increasing connectivity at the Hong Kong International Airport

1 year ago 52

Recently, a cohort of 36 students from MIT and universities across Hong Kong came together for the MIT Entrepreneurship and Maker Skills Integrator (MEMSI), an intense two-week startup boot camp hosted at the MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node.

“We’re very excited to be in Hong Kong,” said Professor Charles Sodini, LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering and faculty director of the Node. “The dream always was to bring MIT and Hong Kong students together.”

Students collaborated on six teams to meet real-world industry challenges through action learning, defining a problem, designing a solution, and crafting a business plan. The experience culminated in the MEMSI Showcase, where each team presented its process and unique solution to a panel of judges. “The MEMSI program is a great demonstration of important international educational goals for MIT,” says Professor Richard Lester, associate provost for international activities and chair of the Node Steering Committee at MIT. “It creates opportunities for our students to solve problems in a particular and distinctive cultural context, and to learn how innovations can cross international boundaries.” 

Meeting an urgent challenge in the travel and tourism industry

The Hong Kong Airport Authority (AAHK) served as the program’s industry partner for the third consecutive year, challenging students to conceive innovative ideas to make passenger travel more personalized from end-to-end while increasing connectivity. As the travel industry resuscitates profitability and welcomes crowds back amidst ongoing delays and labor shortages, the need for a more passenger-centric travel ecosystem is urgent.

The airport is the third-busiest international passenger airport and the world’s busiest cargo transit. Students experienced an insider’s tour of the Hong Kong International Airport to gain on-the-ground orientation. They observed firsthand the complex logistics, possibilities, and constraints of operating with a team of 78,000 employees who serve 71.5 million passengers with unique needs and itineraries.

Throughout the program, the cohort was coached and supported by MEMSI alumni, travel industry mentors, and MIT faculty such as Richard de Neufville, professor of engineering systems.

The mood inside the open-plan MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node was nonstop energetic excitement for the entire program. Each of the six teams was composed of students from MIT and from Hong Kong universities. They learned to work together under time pressure, develop solutions, receive feedback from industry mentors, and iterate around the clock.

“MEMSI was an enriching and amazing opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship while collaborating with a diverse team to solve a complex problem,” says Maria Li, a junior majoring in computer science, economics, and data science at MIT. “It was incredible to see the ideas we initially came up with as a team turn into a single, thought-out solution by the end.”

Unsurprisingly given MIT’s focus on piloting the latest technology and the tech-savvy culture of Hong Kong as a global center, many team projects focused on virtual reality, apps, and wearable technology designed to make passengers’ journeys more individualized, efficient, or enjoyable.

After observing geospatial patterns charting passengers’ movement through an airport, one team realized that many people on long trips aim to meet fitness goals by consciously getting their daily steps power walking the expansive terminals. The team’s prototype, FitAir, is a smart, biometric token integrated virtual coach, which plans walking routes within the airport to promote passenger health and wellness.

Another team noted a common frustration among frequent travelers who manage multiple mileage rewards program profiles, passwords, and status reports. They proposed AirPoint, a digital wallet that consolidates different rewards programs and presents passengers with all their airport redemption opportunities in one place.

“Today, there is no loser,” said Vivian Cheung, chief operating officer of AAHK, who served as one of the judges. “Everyone is a winner. I am a winner, too. I have learned a lot from the showcase. Some of the ideas, I believe, can really become a business.”

Cheung noted that in just 12 days, all teams observed and solved her organization’s pain points and successfully designed solutions to address them.

More than a competition

Although many of the models pitched are inventive enough to potentially shape the future of travel, the main focus of MEMSI isn’t to act as yet another startup challenge and incubator.

“What we’re really focusing on is giving students the ability to learn entrepreneurial thinking,” explains Marina Chan, senior director and head of education at the Node. “It’s the dynamic experience in a highly connected environment that makes being in Hong Kong truly unique. When students can adapt and apply theory to an international context, it builds deeper cultural competency.”

From an aerial view, the boot camp produced many entrepreneurs in the making and lasting friendships, and respect for other cultural backgrounds and operating environments.

“I learned the overarching process of how to make a startup pitch, all the way from idea generation, market research, and making business models, to the pitch itself and the presentation,” says Arun Wongprommoon, a senior double majoring in computer science and engineering and linguistics.  “It was all a black box to me before I came into the program.”

He said he gained tremendous respect for the startup world and the pure hard work and collaboration required to get ahead.

Spearheaded by the Node, MEMSI is a collaboration among the MIT Innovation Initiative, the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives, and Project Manus. Learn more about applying to MEMSI.

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