At the end of last year, the Eastern Pacific Accelerator powered by Techstars announced the nine start-ups joining round two of its technology accelerator programme. We spoke with Eastern Pacific Shipping’s (EPS’) special advisor for innovation, Gil Ofer, and managing director of Eastern Pacific Accelerator powered by Techstars, Dhritiman Hui, about the start-ups and the innovative technologies they are developing to meet some of shipping’s challenges today.
EPS backs robotics and AI for Year 2
Year two of the EPS accelerator programme has backed several start-ups involved in developing advanced robotics and artificially intelligent (AI) driven technologies. EPS realised the maritime industry was lagging in the use of autonomous and remote-controlled robots compared with other industries and wanted to support innovation in this area.
“One has to think what the industry will look like in 10-15 years when making decisions. You only have to take a look at the kind of work the likes of Boston Dynamics are doing to know how cheap robotics is becoming, and how powerful those solutions are becoming,” Mr Hui explained to us.
“Against that backdrop, it is more than likely that robotics will have a big role to play in the maritime world. In our view, we are just trying to stay a step ahead of the curve,” added Mr Ofer.
“There are major challenges, because ships are literally huge floating long-term assets that can’t just be redesigned to make them robot friendly like you can with, say, a warehouse floor. But the potential gains are also huge. Using the warehouse example, consider the efficiency of, say, Amazon’s logistics. They can easily outdo any smaller competitor. So, we want to be pioneers in the maritime industry’s broader long-term transition to increased use of robotics,” Mr Ofer explained.
“If you look at the progress in AI, particularly on the consumer side, so much of that is in software like visual recognition, voice recognition, areas where we have loads of data to crunch. You don’t need fancy robots to leverage software, just computer chips, camera, headset, microphone, etc.”
Robotics and AI also play a significant role when it comes to improving seafarer welfare. “One of the most obvious low-cost / high-impact is in improving seafarer well-being, such as using visual recognition to identify when someone is missing, or providing essential protective equipment or stepping into a hazard zone. People are our top priority, and if there’s any way that we can improve safety and reduce risks in the hazardous conditions of a ship, we’ll give that a try. We want AI to be our seafarers’ guardian angels.”
The pandemic has also highlighted the demand for safe and efficient remote inspections. For EPS, this was another reason to back start-ups developing such technologies. “Another low-hanging fruit are remote inspections using Augmented Reality (AR). That’s especially relevant with COVID-19 restrictions. Inspectors going through AR checklists can more easily avoid making mistakes that could lead to accidents,” Mr Ofer confirmed when asked about the focus for year 2 of the programme.
Resilience and flexibility key for start-ups during COVID-19
As a result of the global pandemic, many businesses have had to modify the way they work. For EPS, adjusting to the ‘new normal’ has involved carrying out enhanced health and safety protocols and optimising operations for reduced-contact interactions, such as remote inspections of vessels or virtual reality training for seafarers,” Mr Ofer explained.
He went on to say that it has been important to stay “resilient and flexible amidst COVID-19’s dynamic economic impacts — including supply chain disruptions and fluctuating demand for freight.
“As a start-up entrepreneur, you must always be flexible and be able to “pivot” if things don’t work out the way you planned. We have had some great examples of how that flexibility and tenacity in action. One of our start-ups from year 1, Seamiles, found that suddenly, their business model became less desirable with new travel restrictions. So, they decided to start a new venture, Spoolify, a platform to match supply and demand for maritime services. What was initially an obstacle opening the door to a new opportunity, even better suited to our times,” Mr Ofer explained.
Adding to this, Mr Hui explained, “Techstars – who is our partner in the accelerator – has invested in many of the world’s most famous unicorns. Their experience has taught them that this tenacity – beyond everything else – is the single most important determinant to an entrepreneur’s success.”
The pandemic has also given EPS the chance to broaden its reach and distribution, which for the start-ups means increasing their global exposure. “This has been fantastic for both them and us,” Mr Hui said.
“It’s easier, for example, to get mentors from around the world to guide our start-ups since they don’t have to leave their offices or homes,” Mr Ofer said. “Although remote work doesn’t provide the same value as face to face, it does offer efficiency gains by quickly connecting with partners around the world.”
In addition, Mr Ofer said that they have seen an increasing willingness from both government agencies and private companies to facilitate paperless, online interactions. “This means that some companies that might have faced hurdles of acceptance in the past because they were seen as ahead of their time, might now have greater chances to succeed faster in the maritime sector.”
Another positive development for EPS is that they have been able to involve seafarers in the innovation process from the bottom-up. Through our internal social media platform, we’ve had seafarers volunteering as mentors to some of our start-ups.
In addition to the pandemic, another major but more subtle challenge that is equally significant according to Mr Ofer is the ambition to go green. “The broader trend is the demand for increased efficiency with reduced environmental impact. In 2018, the UN IMO’s committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by half and last year, they placed new limitations on the sulphur content of ship fuel,” Mr Ofer explained. These have created additional challenges for the entire industry but with the investment from EPS, it is hoped that start-ups with the right innovations will be able to help the industry overcome these additional challenges.
Lessons from Year 1
The first year of the programme was a huge success with almost all of the start-ups having obtained a commercial contract with companies other than EPS, and several of them closing funding rounds successfully, Mr Ofer confirmed to us.
“Learning-wise, we realised that one of the most important things we offer our start-ups is not financial investments (though that’s important too) but access. Access to people: our internal subject matter experts and mentors, as well as a broad spectrum of senior maritime executives, investors, government and regulatory bodies
So, while we had plenty in Year 1, we have prioritised broadening access to a larger group of internal mentors,” Mr Ofer said.
“We found that this process comes with heavy integration requirements, so we created an IT infrastructure (using data lake and API interfaces) that allows start-ups to quickly and safely integrate into our infrastructure and even with each other,” Mr Ofer explained.
Mr Ofer also said that since he spoke to Digital Ship last year, he has seen a change in the way start-ups are perceived.
“Now more people internally have experience working with start-ups. They understand that you need to have different expectations, be patient yet firm in guiding them in the right direction. It’s a very different dynamic from working with established vendors.”
He also believes there is more enthusiasm, which is reflected in higher number of internal staff volunteering as mentors.
“The impact of some of our Year 1 start-ups on our operations, for example the impact of engine performance and route optimisation through high frequency data analysis has had a measurable impact on fuel consumption and subsequently CO2 emissions. Every year EPS publishes a CO2 emissions report as part of our annual Environmental, Social & Governance Policy. This year we announced our 2020 emissions were the lowest they have every been despite a growing fleet. This achievement surpassed our internal target two years ahead of schedule, which caught the attention of several trade publications. There are several factors that that can be attributed to this milestone, one of which being the use of maritime technology on our vessels. This helped people to realise that innovation is not just a pie-in-the-sky value proposition, but something that can deliver benefits in the shorter term as well.”
Externally, maritime innovation has also become more respectable, Mr Ofer confirmed. “Initiatives like MPA’s innovation drive, the maturity model, Pier71 and other global initiatives, including dedicated funding sources, have all contributed to seeing innovation as something more normal and essential. It’s a really exciting time to be in this space.”
Mr Ofer confirmed that the third year of the programme will continue to focus on sustainability and seafarer wellbeing. In addition, EPS will look at the intersection of fintech and maritime innovation in areas such as payments, insurance/risk, and trade finance. This is something that Mr Ofer said he has not seen so much of yet. He also confirmed that EPS is “always interested in game-changing early-stage ideas that, if successful, could have a fundamental impact on our industry.”
The Eastern Pacific Accelerator Powered by Techstars Demo Day took place on February 25. The YouTube recording can be viewed by clicking here.
The start-ups joining the program this year include:
- Captain’s Eye
- Mushroom Material
- Nido Robotics
- The Fuel Matrix
Find out more about these start-ups here www.techstars.com/accelerators/eastern-pacific-shipping