The maritime industry is known to be old-fashioned and complex. There are many discussions about the barriers startups face to making an impact in the industry. However, to Fabian Becker, the best time to make something great is now.
With a background in shipping and finance, Fabian Becker is consistently on a journey of embracing new challenges to pursue his passion. In the past 10 years, he organized startup events where successful startups were formed, helped grow a young shipping company to a fleet of 15 vessels. Later, the combination of startups and shipping knowledge inspired him to dive into maritime digitization in the early days of COVID.
“I love shipping and I’m grateful for it. To some extent, shipping laid the foundation for my life. The first time I was introduced to shipping was through my family - I was invited on the bridge of a high-speed passenger vessel and met seafarers. I was like 17 years old and had barely left Europe, and I didn’t know what I actually wanted to do. However, when I got on the vessel, I met seafarers from many different countries - the Philippines, India, Australia, etc. I was amazed by their stories and the dynamic environment in which they were playing a key role. That day I knew I wanted to find a way into this industry. Since I am naturally sensitive to numbers especially with a currency attached, I chose a role as a shipbroker. ”
To Fabian Becker at that time, ship brokerage was fascinating. It was like a door to a new world. He enjoyed the dynamics of the cargo price changes, the excitement of negotiating with different people, and the impact he could make by deciding which voyage the vessel will take.
While shipbroking was exciting to him, Fabian Becker was also aware that he needed to have more knowledge to delve deeper into the industry. After receiving a scholarship from a large German ship finance bank, he started his university study in Business Administration & Economics with an emphasis on Banking & Ship Finance, further introducing him to the maritime world.
“Though ship finance is not as fast as ship brokerage, it’s even more exciting to me. As a broker, I only needed to look at earnings per day and nothing else. But for ship finance, I get to look at the maritime industry from the asset and investor perspective, which means I put all the knowledge together. From knowing how to buy a vessel, finding investors, how reporting works, and what is the operational expense to run the ship, etc. It felt like I finally found the exact right place.”
As a naturally curious person, the university was a perfect place for Fabian Becker. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, he can ask endless questions. This curiosity led him to the world of entrepreneurship.
“One day, I came across a group of people who wanted to organize startup events at the university. I thought that startups are cool, and doing something on the weekend is also cool. So 5 minutes later, I was in charge of financing Startup Weekends. Organizing Startup Weekends was such an eye-opening thing to do. There I met entrepreneurs that were around 20 years old and already started their companies. For somebody who is from a heavy asset industry like shipping, that was beyond my imagination. I asked how these people got started, the common pattern was that ‘I had the problem, and I realized that other people also share the same problem, so I built a solution and people started to pay me for that ‘"
He enjoyed the “culture shock” so much and he continued to organize the events for a couple of years and later formed a startup initiative at the university. Out of those events some cool startups were born e.g. Nect (www.linkedin.com/company/nect.com), Madmonk (https://www.madmonk.com/), and many others. Throughout these successful cases, Fabian Becker realized that to have a successful startup doesn’t mean you must love what you build, it’s more about you must love the problem you are solving.
After Fabian Becker graduated from university, he was introduced to a founder that was building an unconventional shipping company. Auerbach Schifffahrt was only 6 years old when he joined - for a shipping company that is quite young. In 2019, after three years of working together with the founder, the company grew its fleet to 15 vessels and reached a level of maturity. But the deeper he got into the industry, the more shocked he was about how little digitized the industry is.
“Lucius, the shipping company founder, and I were talking one day about the various new projects entrepreneurs are building in Berlin. We couldn’t help but think about bringing this spirit to the shipping industry. This industry really needed more innovation. To do that, we had a need for more talents and fresh perspectives to actually innovate ashore as well as on board.”
Since then, Fabian Becker started to engage with entrepreneurs in Berlin and Hamburg.
“On average the second-hand value of one of our vessels in 2019 was around USD 7 million, and our vessels were rather at the smaller end of the global scale. Larger ones easily achieve values in the triple million digits. These valuable assets are floating in saltwater every day going from one port to the next and transporting all kinds of stuff. As shipowners and ship managers, we are keen to know the overall condition of the vessel but also like to have an accurate understanding of the individual part of the vessels. But honestly - more often than not, we were lacking the data needed to have a full assessment and in addition. We were strongly relying on personal visits and assessments which are highly subjective. This was concerning us and others in the industry. So we decided to dig deeper into the problem.
Together with Kaiko Systems, we tackled the central problem behind accurate asset condition evaluation: All relevant information was collected - just not in a standardized & structured form that would allow shipping companies to build a dataset that can be used effectively.”
For a long time, the maritime industry was hardly visible to the outside world. With COVID-19, however, the situation is changing, and the global reliance on working supply chains has become top-of-mind for many people. At the same time, travel restrictions and the move from in-person interactions towards remote teams communicating via digital tools caused a fundamental shift in the mindset. Things that were deemed impossible became reality. The need for deeper insights and transparency increased, and management ashore relied on their seafarers to transmit reliable information.
“Suddenly, shipping executives, team leaders and superintendents were all at home. Interestingly enough, this also lowered the barriers of entry when it comes to reaching out and making new contacts, especially for digital entrepreneurs. When I talk to people in the maritime industry that are my age or older, I notice that they are now not only open to working with startups, but even keen to invest their own funds into them. I think that is a very healthy development for our industry. Plus, there's a conviction now that it's worth talking to maritime entrepreneurs when you're facing internal challenges.”
Co-development with technology providers was quickly recognized as a more cost-efficient innovation method that also produced better outcomes than traditional processes of strategy development and implementation.
When asked what it needs to build a successful company in the maritime industry, Fabian Becker suggested that regular and honest feedback is the best value that people working in the industry can give startups. Only then will it be possible for entrepreneurs and their technical teams to develop the kind of products we need in the maritime industry.