Innovations are few and far between for the slow-paced bulk industry. This volatile, often overlooked sector of maritime trade is receiving an infusion of visibility and vessel predictability from data analytics provider FreightFlows.
FreightFlows ties together ship tracking, vessel availability, pricing analytics, predictive path and arrival estimations, commodity cargoes, as well as market, port and fleet activity trends on a comprehensive platform that tracks and predicts these values in real time.
In fact, FreightFlows tracks 71.7% of global tonnage moved in wet/dry bulk markets through its real-time analysis of 550 million data points.
Chief Executive Officer Matt Morgan states that FreightFlows’ mission is to be the best independent data provider, offering visibility to global shipping markets 60 days in advance.
“Our goal at FreightFlows is to make near-term market predictions to help vessel owners, traders, brokers and charterers have much better decision-making power in the international freight markets today and make much more informed decisions on how and when to book, as well as provide predictability about what pricing is going to be to achieve much better utilization for fleets,” Morgan said.
In a perfect world, ships would be ready to move once cargo is accounted for and staged. Unfortunately, bulk shipping isn’t so routine. Unlike their container shipping counterparts, bulk cargo ships aren’t typically scheduled, but instead operate on an as-needed basis; shippers need to find ships to transport their cargo.
At Port Houston, for instance, bulk ships set a course for the Gulf of Mexico and remain idle while loads are prepped at the port.
But what if far fewer ships show up than expected? What if there are port delays? Often, playing the guessing game can burn all parties involved in the bulk trade. In addition, negotiations with ship brokers may last several weeks. FreightFlows benefits all parties involved — cargo owners, ports, carriers and even brokers.
Morgan mentioned a ship broker who spent around five hours a day crunching data and structuring information about the market. Using FreightFlows data, however, that time was slashed to five minutes, which gave the customer time to focus on revenue-generating activities.
FreightFlows’ day-to-day analytics tracks voyage and cargo metrics at every stage of cargo procurement — before, during and after delivery.
“What the industry has is historical data that might lag months behind,” Morgan explains, “or they might have economic forecast data that’s one to 10 years out. But what’s there today if you’re trying to get cargo on a ship and get it on its way, and how do you deal with freight rates that can jump a million dollars seemingly overnight? Not having that predictability is something that companies really struggle with.”
Shippers can easily access pre-fixture variables such as market and price predictions and ship availability, as well as monitor port data while cargo is in transit, including delays and lineups. Equipped with proper foreknowledge, Morgan said that cargo owners and ship operators can avoid costly delays by gauging their speed or changing destinations altogether if necessary.
Dan Crain, operating partner at Newark Venture Partners, and lead investor of FreightFlows, explains how important pre-fixture visibility is for the bulk industry.
“Up until recently, there was very little visibility into, for example, whether the hull is clean and ready to accept specific types of loads,” Crain said. “Let’s say that a boat comes in filled with a bulk chemical such as ethylene glycol and there’s a charterer that wants a boat at the same specification to move 10,000 metric tons of sugar. Obviously, the boat has ethylene glycol in it, so they can’t easily put sugar into the hold.”
Despite the prevalence of ship-tracking technologies in recent years, Morgan states that many lack crucial context. “There are companies out there with incredible visuals with maps showing dots [ships] all over the world. But if you are a trader in need of moving cargo, all of those dots out there don’t actually help you find the ship that you need and get it booked.”
“Historically, [cargo owners] haven’t had any kind of benchmark or understanding of what the general market looks like, and that causes potential prices for their freight to have significant volatility. They might find the total cost of their voyage might jump from $750,000 to $1.5 million,” Morgan said. “By giving the cargo owners visibility into what the market looks like, they can begin their planning process well in advance and potentially score much more beneficial pricing by securing the transportation when they see that the market is depressed.”
Headquartered in Boston, FreightFlows was founded as a startup in 2019 by Morgan and other marine transport veterans. The company looks to replace the industry’s habitual gut-feeling decision-making with a more informed, data-driven approach.
Morgan himself comes from a multigenerational maritime family made up of merchant marines and California State University Maritime Academy graduates. In addition, his father was an oil tanker ship captain for 20 years and ran the pilot station as well as the construction and maintenance division of the Port of Los Angeles.
However, Morgan’s path to the sea was indirect, as he instead studied computer science. He started his career in enterprise technology, later moving to Venezuela as chief information officer for Veconinter, a billing and collection agent for container demurrage and detention, helping the company reach new markets.
Morgan went on to co-found Weft, a Boston-based startup providing artificial intelligence for global logistics. He then joined Genscape Inc., a global provider of real-time data and intelligence for commodity and energy markets, through its acquisition of the company.
His fascination with the bulk side of the industry grew at Genscape, where he applied his data science experience to its AIS ship-tracking technology. This ultimately led him to start FreightFlows.
“FreightFlows is attracting interest from port operators, shippers and others because of its predictability and visibility,” Crain said, adding that “only a handful of tech entrepreneurs have such innate knowledge of the space to build tools that are instantly useful.”
“There’s just so many players in the chain of custody with bulk cargo that have an interest in this. … The attention Morgan has gotten from a variety of different counterparties in the industry that look at what he’s doing [is] like, ‘Wow, I could really use that. I can actually benefit from that today.’ That’s somewhat unprecedented because it is a slow-moving industry.”
What’s next for FreightFlows? “This is just the tip of the iceberg for what’s possible with data-enabled decision-making. We see so many opportunities from our partners in the industry, it’s just a matter of prioritizing which to focus on first,” Morgan said.