Success Stories are a deeper dive into the engagements that drive our members forward. We’re telling these stories through a case study format – complete with an abstract, introduction, method, analysis and conclusion – illustrating how BigCos and startups come together under our one roof.
Even though the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) serves fewer passengers than airports in larger cities, it still needs to deliver an excellent customer experience to millions. Because of the myriad data points from these travelers, most solutions require budgets normally associated with bigger airports. Through relationships with Cintrifuse and the StartupCincy community, CVG was able to connect with local startup Astronomer and craft a custom big data solution without breaking the bank.
In the days of Astronomer’s infancy there was no “CVG” written on the wall. The minds of Brad Kirn, Ry Walker, Tim Brunk and their lean team of engineers weren’t crafting a roadmap that took them directly to the Hebron, Ky. airport.
Instead, CVG was just a contact in Kirn’s address book.
“I think I must have called Brian 35 times one day,” Kirn said.
“Brian” is Brian Cobb Vice President of Customer Services at CVG at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. And to Brian, the 35 phones calls (and 80 text messages), were the answer to his problems. He just didn’t know it yet.
When you look at exactly how CVG found Astronomer and vice versa, there wasn’t a keystone need. But you do have to start somewhere. That “somewhere” was… data.
“As an airport, we have access to enormous amounts of data,” said Cobb. “It’s just a matter of finding the proper and correct application for this units.”
So CVG had located problem number one: data.
Problem number two for CVG was no different than any other business. It was financials. Lucky for airports, there are plenty of solutions out there that solve for big data. On the other hand, regional airports the size of CVG saw the landscape differently.
“In our industry, it’s very easy to just pull something off the shelf,” Cobb said. “But those packages are incredibly expensive and they’re really designed for significantly larger airports.”
CVG is an international airport – and by no means is it a small operation – but it serves a far different purpose than the likes of airports at New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta. So when an airport similar to CVG goes to the proverbial electronics store, all the solutions were built (and priced) for the duplex mansion up the street – not the modest four-bedroom home that more people at the store were shopping for.
The third problem was more of a desire than a wish. It was a wish that ultimately bridged the gap and brought Astronomer to CVG’s doorstep.
“CVG is the front door to the community,” said Stephen Saunders, Senior Manager of Terminal Operations at CVG. “We don’t take that lightly. What we wanted to do was tap into what the region was doing. And Cintrifuse was right at the heart of that.”
Deciding to be an active participant in an organization with programming, membership, workshops and events may seem to be, on paper, a heavy commitment for an organization expected to manage millions of other customers a year. For Cobb, however, his involvement with Cintrifuse began on a personal level.
“My introduction was a self-motivated approach,” said Cobb. “I wanted to see what innovation was in our local region. That’s how I got involved with the Cintrifuse mentorship program.”
Paired with younger, newer entrepreneurs in the Cincinnati market, mentors like Cobb had the opportunity to teach these new business “students” what their industries had taught them throughout their careers. Interestingly enough for Cobb, he quickly found that he was learning even more from the mentor he was paired with.
“I became enthralled with the individual that I helped mentor,” Cobb said. ”We had such a gold mine [of talent] in our marketplace. Clearly the best and the brightest were coming into the Midwest. Quickly my next question became ‘how do I play?’”
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”Brian Cobb, CVG” link=”” color=”7f7f7f” class=”” size=””]“We had such a gold mine [of talent] in our marketplace. Clearly the best and the brightest were coming into the Midwest.”[/perfectpullquote]
Half serendipitously, half by design, the players CVG were looking to acquire were just a floor or two beneath previous mentorship meetings in the Cintrifuse’s Union Hall “living room.” In the living room – the common, open working space on Union Hall’s first floor – Kirn and a team of engineers and top minds at Astronomer were busy hacking away at solutions in data optimization, day in and day out.
“We started working out of Union Hall more often than our office,” said Kirn. “There was a lot more activity happening in Union Hall than there was in this little box office we had. We were squatting down there – as members of course – just waiting to get yelled at. But then one day that Wendy came by and said she loved this!”
Wendy Lea, CEO of Cintrifuse, says that the layout of Union Hall is entirely intentional. Interactions are meant to occur organically, but when a space is pumping in BigCos and entrepreneurs with a regular cadence, the process gets accelerated.
“Union Hall is the entrepreneurial and innovation hub of not just Cincinnati, but for the Greater Cincinnati region as a whole,” said Lea. “If we’re able to cultivate this fertile soil where relationships between BigCos and entrepreneurs can grow, we can spend even more time planting seeds while the plants flourish on their own.”
One way that Cintrifuse commits itself to making sure these fledgling relationships between startups and BigCos are a success comes through innovation workshops. The approach is precise. It’s an effort led by experts at Cintrifuse that narrows the focus of an organization’s “big hairy problem” and puts the roadmap to a solution on a final piece of paper – an innovation brief.
“I came to one of the innovation brief workshop and it really opened my eyes to the process behind [Cintrifuse],” Saunders said. “You start with the idea – obviously everyone has the idea – but there are strategic ways you put those together to get it to the startup.”
With an innovation brief mocked up and an eager startup ready to take a chance CVG and Astronomer “rolled the dice,” but with more comfort than a gambler at a blackjack table.
But Cintrifuse’s involvement wasn’t just passing the ball off to this new pair and hoping they ran off to the endzone. Instead, it was turning around and making sure this partnership had everything it needed as they made their way up the field.
At the onset of the pilot between Astronomer and CVG, Kirn and the entire team at Astronomer were transfixed by a thought that Cobb and the leadership put into their minds.
“Picture: what do you want to know as a passenger?” Cobb asked the group.
This idea fueled their team of engineers, who dove into countless different data streams that an international airport had to offer.
“For example, they started with this snapshot of average security wait time over a day,” Kirn said. “But what we said was, ‘what if we could take that average and blow it out?’ What are the implications if you measure and assess it over different dates, times, holidays, weather conditions, anything to make that customer experience better.”
This is precisely what the airport’s team was after. Cobb and Saunders told the team at Astronomer constantly that they needed to “envision this [solution] being a successful deliverable to a front-end customer.” The airport was committed to elevating the customer experience in ways that customers didn’t even notice.
[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”Stephen Saunders, CVG” link=”” color=”7f7f7f” class=”” size=””]“Any time we needed support from Cintrifuse I knew I could pick up the phone and just really collaborate from that perspective.”[/perfectpullquote]
Through focused pilots, the partnership between CVG and Astronomer grew. And, to no coincidence, CVG continued to garner national accolades for customer experience at the airport. In March of 2017, CVG was named the top airport in the world that served between five and 10 million passengers a year at the World Airport Awards. The awards also ranked CVG at number 26 for best overall airport in the world – the highest-ranked U.S. airport.
The progress doesn’t stop there. Put Kirn, Cobb and Saunders in a room together, and ideas start flowing. From tackling use of escalators to advanced weather predictions to the basics of clean bathrooms, neither side of the partnership turns down an opportunity to tackle something. And they don’t just lean on each other.
“Any time we needed support from Cintrifuse I knew I could pick up the phone and just really collaborate from that perspective,” Saunders said.
Cintrifuse’s partnership takes teams beyond pilots and proof-of-concepts all the way up to the final signed contracts. And after that final contract is signed, the grousp are usually ready to return for another round.
“Let us be the lab that startups come into to test things and to try things out,” Saunders said after a few months of working with Astronomer.
A successful partnership between CVG and Astronomer does not signal the end of the journey for either team. As the collaboration between all of their bright minds continues to build, each partner is looking at ways to duplicate their successes through Cintrifuse and a strong local network.
“We’ve already had some really cool introductions from Cintrifuse to other big organizations in town,” Kirn said. “Can’t talk too much about them, but we’re doing some really cool projects with lots of data.”
From the airport’s point of view, they’re continually looking for ways to help emphasize that they’re a leading voice of the Greater Cincinnati region. Cobb and Saunders boast that they have a “portfolio full of opportunities” thanks to their collaboration with Cintrifuse. But still, they stick close to their friends and partners at Astronomer – and Astronomer is ready to play.
“I look at us as the point guard and teeing [CVG] up for slam dunks,” Kirn said. “CVG is one of the most technically advanced airports in the world and we’re lucky to be a part of it.