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Manifest 2022: Maritime Industry Poised for Change

The supply chain really has gone mainstream when a superstar like Adele cites delivery delays as one of the reasons for postponing several sold-out shows at Caesars Palace Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

Delays of stage materials and Covid-19 cases among the crew for the singer’s “Weekends With Adele” residency proved an apt point of discussion to open the inaugural Manifest logistics conference taking place in Vegas through Wednesday.

“It’s been a really sexy year for trade and logistics,” Megan Conyers, executive vice president at the Florida Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association, told the audience in remarks delivered Tuesday during the conference’s maritime and ports symposium.

Logistics has taken center stage in a national conversation as supply chain challenges have upended businesses across industries, marking a period of record investment into goods movement visibility technologies and a raft of start-ups pitching solutions to modernize freight companies.

The three-day Manifest conference, which has been two years in the making, aims to bring together the legacy businesses in logistics, such as shippers and freight forwarders, with technology start-ups as the industry seeks an overhaul that would be “the greatest thing since the shipping container,” Conyers said.

With the national spotlight on the supply chain and a greater understanding of it by the general public, executives are encouraging each other to take advantage of the opportunity to move things forward.

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“My parents don’t really know what I do for a living,” said Corey Bertsch, vice president of solutions consulting for logistics software company Slync.io, during a panel discussion on digitization. “Never have and now they see it. They understand it and they’re intrigued by it.”

An overarching sentiment among Tuesday’s speaker roster focused on maritime was the industry’s historical pushback on change.

“There’s this reluctance to change because things work and the things that I think help it, are things like Covid that disrupt the industry,” said Chris Stauber, vice president of product at supply chain visibility platform company FourKites, during a panel dubbed “Making Maritime Cool Again.”

Underinvestment is at the root of legacy issues, some say.

Greater attention on what can be done to solve those issues has been a boon for investment, particularly in the ocean freight world, with some $2.6 billion of venture capital going into maritime-related startups last year, pointed out Nick Chubb, founder of maritime research and consulting firm Thetius.

“I don’t really think it’s a space where you can see perhaps some of the enormous exits or IPOs that we’ve seen in the…B2B or consumer tech sectors, but I think there’s some really exciting things happening,” Chubb said.

“It’s not the same as it used to be,” Stauber noted of investment activity. “I think the key word here is frothy. What we saw in the last 18 months is that the infrastructure and the way that we think about supply chain is no longer suitable to what’s happening in the world, and whenever that happens it opens doors and closes doors.”

Stauber projected more consolidation in the industry, led by corporate investors along with non-traditional investors into the space.

Manifest 2022 Las Vegas
Manifest’s inaugural conference covering the intersection of logistics and technology debuted in Vegas Jan. 25. Manifest

Michael Johnson’s company SEA Machines Robotics Inc., where he is CEO and founder of the autonomous ship technology maker, has raised funding with about 40 percent of it coming from corporate venture looking to modernize.

“A lot of the drive from the large corporates that are investing are the 20th century-dominant companies that are looking for their own transition, their own transformation from the mechanical-based capital of the 20th century and trying to figure out their destiny for the 21st century,” Johnson said.

When it comes to innovation, collaboration and the sharing of data were common themes brought up across Tuesday’s speakers. At the end of the day, customers want to be able to track their packages.

“Everybody has a little piece of the picture, and I think some of the things we want to see innovation come to is where we can collectively share that data and start to look at some of those problems,” Stauber said.

With so many tech start-ups vying to have maritime companies use their solutions, it’s created some challenges with integration. In other words, not everyone is playing in the same sandbox.

KlearNow Corp. founder and CEO Sam Tyagi likened it to the children’s game of telephone, where the message becomes more and more distorted each time it passes to another person.

“If we go into this digitization and data collaboration that we’re talking about, if we had that data in one repository and shared it, we could eliminate a lot of those manual steps,” said Tyagi, whose company offers importers, freight forwarders and customs brokers a document management platform.

Ease of use further drives home that point.

“‘Do not send us another platform with another login,’” Chubb said of what he often hears from shippers. “But, a service that integrates with what they’ve already got, they will snap it up.”

New software services are one way the industry is digitizing, but so is autonomy.

Heidi Wyle’s autonomous logistics company Venti Technologies, for example, developed autonomous vehicles that are being used in Asia.

The CEO and founder of Venti, which raised an $8 million seed round last July, cited autonomy as a revolution in people’s everyday lives that will also lead to changes in companies’ cost structures. Those changes, Wyle said, are not far-off concepts in thinking about how the shipping industry modernizes itself in the future.

Said the CEO, “The future is now.”