Mobility has been an incredibly hot topic for several years -Just think about the flurry of ride-hailing apps in most countries worldwide! But one mode of transportation largely remains untapped: helicopters. We sat down with Lionel Sinaï-Sinelnikoff, CEO and Founder of Ascent, a startup who is changing just that.
What’s your background and how did you come to Singapore?
I studied between France and the UK. I joined Airbus Helicopters in France 16 years ago, and quickly moved to Mexico where I stayed for 5 years. I actually started my first company there, which was an art gallery. As I wanted to keep discovering Latin America, I then joined the Chile subsidiary which was in the startup phase.
After about 3 years, we did great but I felt I deserved a break. So I resigned to backpack across the continent. During this trip I created a startup to explore an idea around the sound spaces in stores, malls, etc. It was incubated by Telecom ParisTech. Long story short, after a year or so it did not go as expected.
Luckily, when I didn’t have much left in the bank, my former boss offered me to join him in Singapore to head the commercial activity for Southeast Asia. Progressively I took other leadership responsibilities and I did that for 6 years.
The job was very interesting and incredible. The market is very diverse, with countries like Singapore but also Nepal or Timor. And Customers in the Helicopters industry are very different: you can meet a billionaire in the morning, then a hospital and finally a mountain rescue organization.
I remember a funny anecdote. I was at a Customer’s house, and had two tigers and a bear instead of cats or dogs. And after we made the deal he offered to do a karaoke and took me to a room where he had a full live band just for him to do karaokes!
Anyways, after that I joined REAPRA investment firm and venture builder. And this is where together we decided to create Ascent.
So what is Ascent?
Ascent is an Urban Air Mobility platform. We aim to make cities more connected by offering ride-sharing and on-demand flights. We utilise helicopters today and eVTOLs (flying taxis) in the future.
Our value proposition is simple: we save our users a lot of time while providing an superb and affordable experience. We seamlessly transport them within and between major hubs of activity such as airports, business hubs or leisure hotspots.
Prices start at 180 SGD per passenger to make an hour drive a 5 minutes flight. To do this, we’ve built an ecosystem made of best in class air operators, heliports and hospitality providers, enabled by a proprietary technology stack.
I created Ascent a year ago together with Darren T’ng and REAPRA backed the project. Darren comes from tech companies, so I bring the helicopter industry experience and he brings his tech and marketing expertise.
Where do you stand as a business?
We initially raised 500 KUSD, and after a year in the making Ascent is now live in the Philippines. You can read more in Bloomberg or the Straits Times. We have the official support from the Department of Transport there and we have established the ecosystem needed for our urban air mobility operation. This is a huge achievement since it includes regulations, operations, customer experience, digital platform, vertiport networks, etc.
In less then a month we already see an encouraging traction from the market and a broad media coverage across APAC. We also have hundreds of inquiries and our revenue numbers are in line with our projections.
We have flown 200 people since the start of the project, which makes us really proud.
Today the team is composed of 8 people split between our Singapore and our Manila offices. After the Philippines we expect to expand to other locations of Southeast Asia by the end of the year.
You’re in a fascinating market, what are the key drivers?
Today most operators have an underutilized fleet and infrastructure. This is a huge, untapped opportunity, which we’re addressing in a very simple way. Basically we’re telling them: just give us access to your inventory and we’ll digitize it and provide a simple way for people to book flights with you. Operators love us because none of them do this today.
We have 3 target segments.
First, the business community. The market already exists but it is very cumbersome. We change it by providing an easy, digital and premium user experience for a lower price. This is our main target for now. These are very time sensitive people willing to be free of any traffic and connectivity hurdles.
Second, we have what we call the lifestyle customers. The idea is that today many people choose where they live based on where they work and the traffic to go there. With our service they have much more options and a better lifestyle. But these people are not necessarily used to helicopters so we have to create this market.
Last, the tourists. Obviously we simplify the booking of a pure leisure trip to discover a city from the sky, but it can also be to go from the airport to their hotel or even to move around the city. Here we make it more fun, flexible and easy to book a flight. This is a promising opportunity.
Can you elaborate on the user experience?
Sure. This is our key différentiation. We make everything digital, premium and dead simple. You can book your flight online, you choose your seat and your route, you can choose if you need a car to take you to or from the heliport, etc.
In addition to the online piece, we have teams onsite to take care of you and everything has been carefully curated and designed: our partners, the locations, the lounges, etc.
We sometimes get asked how we would compete with Uber. Well this will be a huge advantage. It’s not just a ride-sharing app for helicopters, it’s a complete experience.
Last question: what do think it takes to be an entrepreneur?
Interesting question! There are many aspects, let me think…
The first thing is probably the willingness to build things. An entrepreneur is someone with a vision and the burning desire to build it and make it happen. There might be an irrational component to it by the way, but as an entrepreneur you should always follow your instinct.
But I think entrepreneurs want to “contribute”. What I mean by that is that as an entrepreneur you need to make money, but this must never be the driver. You’re trying to solve a problem for people. This is what drives everything you do, not the money.
Then there’s resilience. Everyday there’s a ton of shit issues you have to deal with and each one could be a reason to give up! So you must be very resilient to continue whatever it takes. But resilient doesn’t mean stubborn. You must stay humble and learn to adapt to the changing conditions. If you desperately stick to your original idea there’s a huge risk to build something nobody wants. I made this mistake in my first company and paid the price! Today at Ascent we test everything to adjust. The website, our offers, the routes, customer data, etc. Testing takes approximately 30% of the whole team’s time.
There’s also the ability to gather around you the right people. Folks who are smarter than you and from whom you can learn. This very important and it is true for your co-founders, your staff as well as investors.
And finally you have to be able to get your hands dirty. Many things just need to get done and as an entrepreneur you must lead by doing, period. And it is important because you can’t delegate something you can’t do yourself.
Oh and a important advice for all entrepreneurs: take care of your body. I know that if I don’t eat well, if I lack some sleep or don’t do enough sport, I’m just a complete mess!