Guest blog: The digital transformation of shipping is a £13 billion opportunity for the UK

The UK has a lucrative opportunity on its hands, writes Nick Chubb, one of the authors of the new report 'Frictionless trade: How new technology will power international trade'

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The UK has always been a trading nation. For centuries, our ability to trade with other nations around the world has been a key driver of our economic success. By now, everyone knows that digital transformation is changing the game, not just in shipping, but in every industry. Although the maritime sector has been slow to change, innovation is gathering pace and it is important to consider how the digital transformation of the industry could play out and what part the UK can play in the process.

The promise of technology transforming maritime trade is not merely a distant pipedream. Around the world startups, equipment manufacturers, ports and ship operators are leading the charge in digitalisation. From Antwerp to Dubai, Rotterdam to Singapore, there are already a number of projects realising extraordinary efficiency gains through new digital innovation. The Port of Rotterdam’s port call optimisation platform, Pronto, developed with Dutch startup Teqplay, has allowed vessel operators to cut waiting times at the port by up to 20%, for example. Israeli startup AiDock has shown real promise in cracking the widely discussed customs problem. A graduate of world-leading maritime innovation hub theDock, the startup has developed an automated customs clearance platform that reduces the admin burden on freight forwarders and speeds up the customs process.

While a number of centres for maritime innovation are being developed across the world, the UK has been slow to adapt and has fallen behind some of our more agile international neighbours. But as the UK prepares for Brexit, we are witnessing the beginnings of a rapidly growing, digitally enabled sub-sector, which is changing how the industry operates. Whether you call it ShipTech, FreightTech, or Tradetech, the UK shipping technology sector is now a £4 billion industry in its own right, estimated to be worth £13 billion per year by 2030.

There is now a growing number of UK startups building out technological solutions to some of the industry’s biggest problems. London-based CargoMate has developed a platform that helps containerships minimise delays in port, allowing them to sail slower and save fuel. Hull-based Relmar is developing an AI-powered maintenance platform for vessels that maximises uptime while minimising risk and cost.

In a new report, co-authored by myself and Startup Wharf founder Leonardo Zangrando, we examine which technologies will transform the maritime trade sector and highlight 65 of the most promising maritime startups around the world.

One of the key findings of the report is that, while the UK maritime sector has been slow to change to date, we have an opportunity to make the UK a hub for digital innovation in maritime that will not only drive greater efficiencies across the industry, but will also position us as an open, forward-thinking trading partner for countries around the world. To do this we need to create an ecosystem that allows for greater collaboration between regulators, academic institutions, shipping companies and entrepreneurs.

Brexit, the Sino-American trade war, the 2020 global sulphur cap on marine fuel and the IMO’s 2050 greenhouse gas strategy all present great challenges for our industry. It will be impossible for shipowners to solve these problems in isolation. Corporate innovation is too slow, risky and expensive to be effective in today’s world. If the UK wants to take a lead in the transformation of the maritime sector, we need to embrace startup-driven innovation and learn to work with fast-moving entrepreneurs and innovators like those behind CargoMate and Relmar.

While startups won't solve every problem our industry faces, this approach will open up new opportunities, create new business paradigms and make others extinct. If the UK wants to retain its position as a major maritime nation, we need to create the change the industry needs and — in my opinion at least — startups will play a key role in making that happen.

About the Frictionless Trade report

Despite recent advances, the international shipping industry has a long way to go in terms of fully leveraging the potential of new technologies. Innovation in this sector is crucial to helping the UK to overcome the technical challenges posed by Brexit, but also to its ambition of establishing itself as an open, forward-thinking international trading partner. This report:

  • Segments the current international trade process into six sections, and highlights where technology can make a significant contribution,
  • Features the 65 leading trade technology startups from around the world,
  • Showcases how the growing venture market in the UK will be worth as much as £5.1 billion to new startups in 2030,
  • Gives recommendations for government, startups and commercial incumbents on how they can collaborate to foster greater innovation,
  • Outlines how greater innovation in this sector could potentially be supported by piloting the UK’s first free port.

You can download the full report here.

  • The findings from the report will be launched formally to the shipping industry on Tuesday 30th October at the UK Chamber's event 'Shipping technology: transforming international trade'. As usual, the event is free to attend for members of the Chamber; a small fee applies for non-members. You can book your place and find out more here.