It's no secret that Singapore’s strategic positioning along the Strait of Malacca played a vital role in connecting our tiny nation to countries beyond the border, accelerating the growth of the economy after independence. It’s textbook knowledge.
Yet in 2014, the collapse in oil prices shook the industry, leading to the loss of jobs and debt restructuring. Now, the tremors of China’s Belt and Road Initiative are increasingly felt. With a new Silk Road on the way, converging a population of 600 million in Southeast Asia via land, will the emporium on sea continue to flourish? Can our country maintain its ranking as the world’s top maritime centre for decades to come?
We forget that Singapore’s maritime industry carries a mantle surpassing trade itself. At a fundamental level, Singapore is the world’s top bunkering port and a leading maritime centre for the provision of maritime services, such as the building and repair of vessels, ship management and ship brokerage. As an International Maritime Centre, we are the chosen core for multinational maritime companies to convene their regional headquarters in.
One reason for Singapore’s success as a maritime nation lies in the industry’s ability to strengthen connections amongst maritime clusters and develop new avenues for collaboration. This is further enabled by organisations such as the Singapore Maritime Foundation (SMF) which acts as a bridge between the private and public sectors of the industry, driving initiatives that provide platforms for the formation of partnerships and collaborative opportunities within the industry to strengthen Singapore’s position as an International Maritime Centre, and attract talent to join the sector.
With such supportive infrastructure, not only are well established companies finding it attractive to enter the maritime industry, but start-ups as well. In particular, there is an increasing number of tech start-ups that are contributing to the industry, as they see untapped potential in the industry following its shift towards digitalisation.
“Many people have the impression that the maritime industry is not open to technological innovations,” Christopher Lim, CEO of Glee Trees Pte. Ltd. says. Gleematic, the company’s robotic software, automatically completes immigration clearance for crew, updates vessels’ details into government web portals and declares goods among other human-fallible tasks.
“The industry is changing. We are witnessing more tech companies like us actively transforming the maritime space.” As with any other industry in this epoch, technology is constantly integrating into and upgrading each sector. Interestingly, Lim had no maritime background whatsoever. And he is not the only one. Yet, these individuals found themselves in maritime, with the desire to inject change into an industry that is largely perceived to be a traditional one.
Seeing how their niche can provide solutions that have a real impact on productivity and work processes, entering an industry that could only stand to benefit seemed right. Xia Lingxiao’s start-up, Portcast, enables their clients through predictive analytics. With that, companies are able to gain competitive advantages, reduce risks and improve operational efficiency, amongst other benefits.
“Singapore is the world’s largest transshipment hub so there are many potential business opportunities we could tap into and that made the maritime industry a very attractive place to form a start-up,” he says. Portcast not only helps shipping lines, freight forwarders and manufacturers accurately track their containers’ estimated time of arrival, they also provide demand forecasts, shortfall ratio predictions and automated pricing recommendations, thus staying ahead of rival offerings.
That’s not to say the waters aren’t choppy. Naturally, every venture comes with its own challenges. “Being new to the maritime industry, we needed help in understanding the domain knowledge of the industry, such as the pain points and the key obstacles preventing the larger scale adoption of the Internet of Things,” explains Stephen Ho, Group COO of SkyLab.
Centred on the Industrial Internet of Things, SkyLab develops edge cloud computing and data logistics products that could reinvent the industry’s data harvesting and transportation processes. “The shipping sector has a challenging communications environment where the primary communications mode is satellite communications, which is vulnerable to high latency, high packet loss and limited bandwidth.”
Enter Skylab Transport AcceleratorTM or STATM for short, a data transport accelerator engine designed by SkyLab that enhances satellite communications while at sea. At the recent Sea Asia Conference and Exhibition event held in Singapore earlier in the year, SkyLab was one of many start-ups that exhibited at the Innovation Arena, showcasing their technologies and solutions to the wider maritime community.
Co-organised by SMF and Informa Markets, the three-day event brought close to 15,000 participants globally to meet and discuss pertinent issues in the industry, also providing a platform for maritime companies to showcase their latest offerings at the exhibition floor.
“It was really exciting to see that the data logistics and acceleration technology that we developed to meet the needs of other industries could likewise be used to enable maritime companies here,” Ho says.
Learning how to get stakeholders to see the necessity and advantages of such technologies firsthand was not the easiest, to say the least. Thankfully, with supportive initiatives and partnerships such as the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore and NUS Enterprise’s PIER71 programme, there were opportunities for tech start-ups, such as Glee Trees, Portcast and Skylab, to connect with industry veterans and allow them to demonstrate the capabilities of their innovations.
Another start-up that had benefited from this programme and is making waves in the industry, is Ocean Freight Exchange (OFE), the first place winner in the PIER71 Smart Port Challenge 2018. It’s your classic entrepreneur story. “When I first embarked on this path, the business was purely bootstrapped by personal savings,” recalls John Hahn, CEO of OFE. “Almost everything was sold to fund costs in the initial years, which were stressful times for me and my family.”
OFE went from a risky pursuit to a 35-person team that is integral to the optimisation of bulk chartering and bunker delivery—the delivery of ship fuel. Available applications cover highly pertinent areas of email parsing, tonnage and cargo matching, and predictive analytics. Taking a step further to do the heavy lifting of processing big data, OFE believes firmly in helping companies of all sizes do their best work smartly.
The IMO has ruled a compliance that requires a reduction of sulphur content in bunker fuel from 3.5 per cent to 0.5 per cent, which will take effect from 1 January 2020. The landmark change is already impacting shipping economics, operating costs, global freight rates and much more. However, this presents opportunities for start-ups like OFE to help maritime companies ease into these changes.
“As the IMO 2020 regulations on global sulphur limit for fuel oil will increase the complexity of delivery logistics, our Right Bunker commercial and operational platform is well-positioned to deliver the new technology required to manage that,” maintains Hahn.
“As the maritime industry continues to grow and evolve, more companies will be receptive to going digital and this presents abundant opportunities for us,” Lim says. Glee Trees is poised to contribute to the ongoing digitalisation efforts of the industry, especially with the upcoming Tuas Port and its focus on becoming a fully automated port.
One thing is certain, there’s much more potential for tech start-ups to tap into. Currently, the local maritime ecosystem consists of about 5,000 companies with around 170,000 employees making significant contributions to the country’s GDP at seven per cent. “As more maritime technology companies set up offices here, Singapore would be cemented at the forefront of digitalisation in this global industry,” Xia adds.
Evidently, tech start-ups are here to stay in the maritime industry. If our nation is any indication to welcoming new challenges, we can only expect the maritime pillar to adapt, grow and thrive in an ever-evolving environment. Securing to its rich history as an anchor, and drawing upon the harbour of opportunities by these tech companies at the helm, steering onwards is a voyage to anticipate.
Although the four tech startup companies featured here are all in the maritime industry, they specialise in different areas and service different clients. This shows that the industry is not just growing in one particular aspect, but as a whole. There are abundant opportunities for startups like them to drive change across all sectors.
The world-leading Artificial Intelligence marketplace for charterers, owners and brokers. Right Bunker is their AI-driven bunker tanker platform to optimise bunker deliveries to ocean-going vessels. Investors include the co-founder of LinkedIn, first investors in Netflix and Uber, and Peter Evensen, retired CEO of Teekay.
A deep technology software company focusing on the development of Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and edge cloud computing technologies, products and solutions. Their product, STA™, helps to enhance satellite communications at sea through data acceleration.
An Artificial Intelligence Robotic Process Automation (RPA) vendor. Their product, Gleematic, is a RPA software that helps to complete tasks on computers automatically within a short period of time, which can be adopted by companies in banks, insurance, finance, HR and shipping.
A machine learning platform that uses real time external data to predict cargo flows (machine learning to help with data analytics). Their services target ports, shipping lines, forwarders as well as manufacturers.
This article is commissioned by Singapore Maritime Foundation.