Big Interview: Digital identity specialist Zamna, the COVID 'nuclear winter' survivor

Big Interview: Digital identity specialist Zamna, the COVID 'nuclear winter' survivor

Lee Hayhurst spoke to founder Irra Ariella Kri and recent investor and new board member Julia Sattel, the former Amadeus president, who says only mindset is holding the aviation industry back from adopting transformative tech

Most tech start-ups harbouring dreams of making it big want to become unicorns – firms that hit a $1 billion valuation without going public.

But having survived the “nightmare” of COVID, digital identity blockchain specialist Zamna is happy being likened to a distinctly less mythical but famously resilient creature.

Founder and chief executive Irra Ariella Kri believes COVID has proved to be the pivot point that will see Zamna technology rise from the ashes of the pandemic.

“Two of our investors said something which I actually find flattering,” she told Travolution. 

“Investors usually hunt unicorns, but our investors said forget unicorns we love that Zamna survived a nuclear winter, it’s like a cockroach, invest in a cockroach.” 

A more recent investor in Zamna is former Amadeus president Julia Sattel, a long-time advocate for digital identity as the answer to travel’s customer experience challenges.

She sees change coming driven largely by carriers in the Middle East and other early adopters like Canadian carrier WestJet which has completed a pilot of the Zamna tech.

“What needs to be understood is that instead of the vertical components of travel with airline, hotel, car, events, destination services, you need to connect the dots.

“Putting the customer in the centre is building the best process for the customer and that is not having for a trip with seven components seven apps across several brands. 

“I want one app where the whole trip is unlocked. With this I can pay for any service, any upgrade, hotel, the car, and identified once for all. 

“If you know what the customer wants this gives the opportunity for travel players to build the best experience for them. With customer centricity, the customer is the passport. 

“There’s no technical obstacle, I believe, it’s the mindset and the attitude of the players that has to open up towards digital tools and to really become serious about customer centricity.  

“If that’s what the airlines, the hotels, the car rental companies want then the implementation itself is no problem. 

“It’s a simple as can be, but the airlines and the other players have to jump to adopt in order to be giving a better customer experience.”

Alongside its first commercial partners, Zamna has a framework agreement with the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) that embodies more than 30 carriers.

Sattel said the Middle East has “always fostered customer centricity” within some of the world’s leading airlines. 

“They have the funding to drive change and, what’s more, they have the vision, the leadership, and the guts to do it. 

“Other airlines still have many traditional processes and customer centricity is spoken about but it’s not really converted into reality. 

“Change is slow, but change is very fast in the Middle East which is a region I have seen where courage and leadership are taken seriously.” 

Sattel said aviation is an ideal sector for digital identity to take hold in and to take advantage of what the tech giants like Apple, Google and Amazon have long understood. 

She said it is “mind-blowing” what can be achieved which is why she has taken the opportunity to invest in Zamna and join its board.

“Before Zamna, I was not convinced because all other digital identities required apps and data complexities. 

“Zamna was the first one that fulfilled my requirements, so I believe in it. I believe as much in the future of Zamna as I do in the future of people that travel. 

“They have cracked the technology and if digital identity is the future of internet commerce, not only travel commerce, I as a travel industry expert ought to be there.

“The future will be what the future is; all scenarios are possible. It’s always better, if you want the best future, that you take it in your own hands. You decide what the future will be.

“Middle East leadership does this and I encourage all airlines to take their future in their hands and do something to give this future a chance for it to happen.”

Zamna is currently undergoing a pre-Series A funding round ahead of what it expects will be a “meaty” full Series A as it rebuilds a team that was decimated during COVID. 

Khi said: “It’s a universal truth that certain things have to go very wrong in the established industry for a new innovative company to be heard through the noise. 

“We had an awful COVID in that we went from 40 people down to single digits, no one knew what was going to happen.”

While the pandemic was tough, additional governmental requirements for documentation to travel was the perfect proving ground for modern digital identity. 

Khi said Zamna does not seek to interfere with or disrupt airline or passenger processes but sit invisibly in the background checking and verifying identity seamlessly. 

“The COVID situation has simply made reality of the worst-case scenario for an airline. What if you need so many documents that an airline would actually collapse checking them?”

Zamna says as of March 2022 it is the only start-up in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) working group on travel related and public health document proof. The body sits behind the only universally recognised identity standard - the passport. 

Khi said: “Incumbents in the sector are all trying to digitise the traditional passport. They’re zigging while we’re zagging. 

“The passport’s never going to change in travel. Don’t try to take the passport, digitise it and put it on people’s phones. It’s never going to happen.

“Digitise, in a super secure way, the transactions of any document, including your passport, or visa, because those transactions are what will drive the reputational score for your data.

“Much as your credit card transactions drive your reputational score with a bank, the data transactions for your identity drive your digital passenger identity in travel specifically. 

“It’s very easy to see why identity is mission critical in an industry such as international travel. 

“Airlines are forced to manage and check your identity by governments and they have become even more sensitive to identity and require more digital and paper processes. 

“So it makes perfect sense for us to be the solution for digital identity, particularly in travel. We are almost like ‘reg-tech’, helping airlines comply with those processes. 

“We provide digital identity but with zero new processes for either the passenger or the airline. It’s like a black box which speaks their language and creates zero disruption. 

“We’re not trying to touch or change the DCS [Departure Control System], which is a death sentence for any innovation.”

Having signed its first client in January, Zamna is back up to double digit employee numbers and is now on the search for experienced aviation tech talent to turn potential into reality. 

“We’re hiring quite aggressively which is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. You can’t build a great company with mediocre people,” said Khi.

“We are spending our money on talent, hiring, expanding our teams and delivering on the commercial opportunities we have won this year because our COVID nightmare is over.”