How to successfully collaborate with start-ups

Start-ups can help the maritime industry foster innovation in the rapidly-evolving field of digital technologies – and enable its transformation.

April 16 2019

Much of the transformation currently taking place in the maritime industry has to do with digitalization. As this is not the core business of many maritime companies, they are finding themselves lacking the competence, tools, and sometimes a thorough-enough understanding of the implications of digitalization. At least, this is the opinion of a chief business development officer at a maritime tech start-up, who participated in Rainmaking’s focused start-up-corporate impact programme, Trade & Transport Impact.

The Trade & Transport Impact programme focuses on finding business opportunities while addressing important maritime industry challenges, such as safety, sustainability and efficiency. As ecosystem partner, the Global Maritime Forum had the privilege of experiencing first-hand one of the crucial milestones of the programme: its Selection Days in Hamburg. The days brought together representatives of the programme’s three corporate partners, and 14 start-ups that had successfully made it through a thorough screening process. But they all had one more gruelling task before them: to find a match between corporate needs and start-up solutions, and to partner-up to bring new digital solutions into the industry.

The focus of this article is not the specific digital solutions presented, nor the partnerships considered. Our attention was directed to a wider question: what have the workshop participants to say about the maritime industry’s digitalization, and what role can start-ups play in it?

How can start-ups foster innovation?

When asked why they had chosen to innovate with start-ups, the three corporate partners of the programme were loud and clear. Big corporations need to be stable, so they are slow. They offer a wide portfolio of services, so they do not have the resources needed to be on the frontline of innovation in every potentially relevant technology. There is a great deal happening in the tech world, and understanding it often requires hands-on experience. So how can these companies truly understand all that is being done in order to innovate before it is too late?

This is where start-ups are a perfect fit. Their founders can have a maritime background, having worked for big maritime companies in the past, but have instead chosen a much narrower focus, which they explore with a much smaller team. This gives them the agility needed to find solutions much more quickly than big corporations. In return, corporate partners can offer them the size, sales capabilities, as well as market access and market knowledge they need to understand the pain points of the industry and to scale up in size.

Alternatively, start-ups can have expertise in a technology that has been applied on various problems in a variety of industries, and can help maritime companies understand how it could be applied to theirs. When it comes to Artificial Intelligence, for example, the results of our Global Maritime Issues Monitor 2018 show that maritime leaders do not seem to think – or understand – that it will play a major role in the industry in the near future. And yet, more than half of the technological solutions that the start-ups in Hamburg had pitched involved some form of Artificial Intelligence. But this is often the case with the speed of technological development: what had been predicted to unfold over the span of decades, matures fully over the span of years.

Successful collaboration requires all hands on deck

Do not be fooled, though – finding a perfect match between a company’s needs and a start-up’s proposed solution is not all that is needed for a successful collaboration. Innovating with start-ups is more complex, and it has many pitfalls along the way.

A major potential barrier pointed out by representatives of both start-ups and corporates is the difficult task of aligning expectations. Both sides of the collaborative process strongly advise their counterparts to bring openness and transparency to the table. This will help manage expectations on what can be achieved, and when. For this to be possible, both corporates and start-ups must also come into the discussions with a crystal-clear understanding of what they can offer, and what they require in return. Open-ended conversations and vague propositions will be much more difficult to turn into a concrete partnership.

The pace of corporate innovation can also be a problem. Due to the size of their company, the corporate partners need to keep in mind that, in order for the collaboration to be successful, they need to onboard all relevant divisions within their company. For start-ups, this might make the process seem too slow, but they need to understand big companies must be more risk-averse than start-ups, and act accordingly. What corporates can do to ease speed-related concerns, however, is show organizational commitment to thoroughly explore the collaboration from the get-go.

But the origin of potential barriers runs even deeper than this. They may also be the result of a company’s business mindset and so are connected to the culture of the company or industry in question. Sometimes companies may understand what a start-up is offering, but may not know how to integrate it into their value proposition. This might in fact require the creation of an entirely new position, new team, and new metrics for measuring that team’s performance. Digitalization does therefore not involve only technological progress, but must be accompanied by educational efforts. All participants, at every level, need to understand what is at stake, what can be done, and, crucially, how to do it.

The beginning of a long digitalization journey

How far along is the maritime industry in this educational task? An almost unanimous opinion of the workshop participants with a strong background in maritime was that the maritime industry is ready for change, but that many of the companies are unsure as how to proceed. The world is moving fast, and even though the maritime industry has realized it has to move along with it, some see the change as not matching the pace needed.

Above all, the start-up representatives see the maritime industry as a sector which can benefit from their solutions, but which is not yet entirely aware of the options that collaboration with the start-up world has to offer. Yet the scale of many challenges today is such that they cannot be resolved by any individual entity. Collaboration, therefore, is becoming a necessity. Maritime incumbents who collaborate with tech start-ups can take an important step towards a safe, clean, inclusive and efficient maritime industry.

After all, it should not be forgotten that the development of new digital technologies, in maritime as well as any other industry, should not be seen solely as an objective onto itself – it is a means to an end. Digitalization in the maritime industry can be a powerful enabler of other, greater advancements.

The authors of this article would like to thank Rainmaking Transport, Wartsila, Inmarsat and Cargotec for kindly inviting us to participate at the Trade & Transport Impact programme’s Selection Days in Hamburg. We also give our thanks to all the workshop participants who agreed to answer our questions there, and so provided the foundation of knowledge on which this article is built.

An important aspect of the Trade & Transport Impact programme that should not be overlooked was the role Rainmaking Transport played in bringing together the participants and creating a common ground between them. The programme started out with scanning and examining more than 600 start-ups from around the world – and then narrowing down that number to 14. This ensured that the start-ups present in Hamburg were the best in the fields the corporates had chosen to address.

Photo credit: Rainmaking

The views expressed in this Insight are those of the author alone and not necessarily those of the Global Maritime Forum. Excerpts may be published with reference to the Global Maritime Forum.

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