“Unpredictability is always in the background” — a Q&A with Roberto Coustas, co-founder and CEO at DeepSea Technologies
Founded by Oxford and Cambridge graduates Konstantinos Kyriakopoulos and Roberto Coustas in 2017, DeepSea specialises in using artificial intelligence to improve vessel performance monitoring and optimisation in the shipping industry.
Roberto, with everything that’s gone on this year, what are the lessons you’ve learnt and how are you applying them to DeepSea in 2021?
One thing we definitely learnt is that unpredictability is lurking in the background of every environment, every business. You might not notice it when everything is going well. If the economy is booming, I think we are all guilty of forgetting how volatile the world around us is. But what this last year has shown us is that we’re going to face unprecedented events and challenges, whether that’s within the company or at a macro level, and we really need to think on our feet and adapt to situations around us.
At DeepSea, we sat down fairly early on to devise a way of adapting our strategy as it became apparent that COVID was going to have an impact on our business. That was in February 2020, and we had just accepted that travel was going to be restricted for at least 12 months.
That was an issue for us. While we are a technology company, before the pandemic prep work had to be conducted onboard the vessels in order for their systems to be compatible with our solutions. That meant that very often our team had to travel all around the world for the installations. It had been a restriction we were trying to tackle anyway, but then COVID hit, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to scale our operations in that way any longer.
We adapted in two ways. First, we devised a plan for on-board crews to integrate our system on their own. Basically, it was just like how companies went from having the IT department set up a desktop in the office to sending a laptop to a worker’s house with instructions on how to get it working. That worked really well — we’ve been able to grow installations by 30–40% compared with before the pandemic, and it’s all been done by vessel crew. None of our competitors have been able to replicate that.
Second, we deployed a software-only solution that didn’t rely on hardware infrastructure. That meant we were able to scale our software and recurring revenues without being restricted by the pandemic.
With both of these approaches we didn’t try to fight this big obstacle. We looked at how we could circumvent it and adapt to the conditions the pandemic created.
What are your plans for 2021?
From a product perspective, we’re continuing to work on our SaaS solution, but what’s really interesting is what’s happening in the industry, and the opportunities that are going to arise for us.
The International Maritime Organization, the regulator for everything maritime, is going to be voting on new regulations that will determine how vessels monitor their emissions. More than that, it is looking at introducing a grading system for vessel efficiency, with a tax on emissions for any vessel below a certain grade.
This will have massive ramifications — ship owners are going to need to be able to monitor and optimise their vessels effectively, in real-time. They’re going to need to implement changes quickly, and technology will be the most cost-effective and accurate way of doing that.
For us, it’s a major opportunity. Not only to support ship owners in grading and improving their fleets, but also understand how future regulations could affect them, so that they can adapt and plan accordingly.
Why is sustainability so important to the business and the industry as a whole?
Shipping connects the world — I think the BBC called it the invisible network a few years ago. The majority of the products we use, much of the food we eat, our clothes, cars — at some point in their supply chain they’ve been on a container ship. Then there’s the bulk carriers, fuel carriers — so much of life is transported by sea for at least part of its journey. That means that as consumers, if we want the brands we buy from to be more sustainable, then ultimately shipping needs to be looked at.
So, we have a situation where sustainability is becoming increasingly important to customers, which in turn influences brands and consumer-facing businesses, and so on, right up the chain.
At the same time, shipping has a lot of opportunities for efficiency. Fuel is a major cost. If ship operators can drive down how much fuel they use, then they save money, and emissions drop. But to do all that requires real-time data. Many operators have already implemented slow steaming to cut emissions and fuel use, but they still need to find more ways to reduce emissions, and that means having data, having visibility and being able to make rapid and dynamic changes. At the moment, vessel masters send a daily email with the vessel speed, current location and fuel consumption. For a central operations function that isn’t enough information, and that’s where we can come in and help.
Looking further ahead, where do you see opportunities for DeepSea in the next five to ten years?
In shipping you have very large businesses worth billions of dollars that are, on the whole, slow to adapt. The industry has historically been quite conservative and distrustful of technology, and it’s only recently started opening up. Now, though, these regulations are forcing them to innovate, and they realise that to do that they need to tap into the expertise, the agility and the culture of smaller, more digitally-minded businesses.
You only need to look at what the likes of CMA CGM and Maersk have been doing, partnering, investing in and acquiring digital logistics start-ups, to see where the giants are headed. That for us is the opportunity, to partner with them so that they can access our technology to help revolutionise their operations.
After everything that’s happened, what’s one piece of advice founders should take on board?
That’s something that evolves through time — what’s relevant to an early-stage founder will be different to a scale-up CEO and so on. That said, the one constant that we’ve noticed as part of a highly evolving business is that you need to keep learning and surround yourself with people that will help you personally grow. It’s very tempting to think you know everything because you’ve succeeded previously, but that doesn’t necessarily help you in the future. Keep humble, keep learning and be aware you will face new challenges all the time. This will help you develop problem solving skills to tackle these new obstacles.
How has the ETF support helped shape the business?
The two major ways the ETF Partners has had an impact is first the team made us realise the importance of sustainability for large organisations and the need for companies to track and decrease emissions. A year ago, we weren’t as focused in that area, now we are and it’s been a major driver for growth.
The second is ETF Partners’ network — the whole company is incredibly well connected. This helps us attract large companies we can work with and drive revenue growth, and it also helps us connect with people who can act as a support group with respect to the challenges we might face. This might be an experienced founder or a board member of a large shipping organisation and what really drives their commercial environment. That’s not something we would have been able to access without the ETF Partners.