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Tapping the wisdom of crowds

SeaFreight Labs is partnering with InnoCentive to use “crowd-solving” and the lure of prizes to help carriers and forwarders solve knotty transport problems.

(Image: SeaFreight Labs)

In 1714 the British government offered a £20,000 prize to anyone who could develop a method that would allow seafarers to find their longitude to within half a degree. The prize was eventually awarded to the clockmaker John Harrison, who was able to build a marine chronometer that could keep highly accurate time on moving ships.

SeaFreight Labs is a new company taking inspiration from both the rich history of such prizes and contemporary interest in so-called “crowd-solving” to create a new service aimed at helping carriers and forwarders solve knotty problems in the sea freight industry.

Harry Sangree, the founder of SeaFreight Labs, said his company has formed a strategic partnership with InnoCentive, a company that has offered crowd-solving services to a wide variety of industries over its 18-year history.

Harry Sangree (Image: SeaFreight Labs)

Sangree explained that his new venture will help companies in the sea freight industry pose problems they are trying to solve and then incentivize “solvers” with prizes.

Sangree is no stranger to innovation. He was a senior vice president and part of the original management team at the container shipping portal INTTRA, a board member at Synchronet and, until last December, an executive vice president at CargoSphere (now part of WiseTech Global Group), which helps companies manage ocean, air and land transportation rates.

“I got the itch to start a new company again,” he said, and started SeaFreight Labs with the goal of helping companies in the shipping industry innovate in a “new and better way. We have such big problems ahead of us with environmental issues and other issues that are out there that I thought a new method of innovation could be useful.”

Companies will be able to use the SeaFreight Labs platform to pose questions that their internal teams are having problems solving and offer prizes to individuals or teams that want to develop solutions. The teams will then exchange the intellectual property they develop in exchange for prize money. Innocentive, said Sangree, has a robust experience in managing the transfer of IP in exchange for prizes.

Given his background, Sangree thought most of these issues would be related to information technology, but in speaking to executives in the industry, he said they also may address challenges related to environmental issues or even ship operations.

By taking problems out to a global audience (Innocentive has an audience of 400,000 freelance problem-solvers who have responded to more than 2,400 challenges), companies can get access to individuals who have different experiences from working in a variety of industries than the company’s internal team.

“Often you can get a very different idea, a very creative idea you never would have thought of yourself and move forward,” he said. Hence, it took a clockmaker to create a practical solution to the longitude problem.

More recently, the Oil Spill Recovery Institute was able to remove oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill by using an idea proposed by John Davis, a consultant who, while studying chemistry at Illinois State University and Notre Dame, had a summer job pouring concrete. Davis knew construction companies vibrate concrete to keep it liquid during large projects. He proposed a similar technique be used on oil that had solidified into viscous masses with frozen water in Alaska waters. OSRI was able to use that idea to remove oil on the Alaska shoreline and surrounding sea that had persisted for about 20 years after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Prize solving, said Sangree, can help companies break free of “group think” and introduce lots of different ways about how to solve problems in parallel at a relatively low cost since the solvers are working for free unless they are awarded the prize money. He said 100 people may work on a problem; some of their ideas may be worthless, but others may propose a breakthrough. 

“People like to solve problems and you are making use of natural curiosity,” he said. 

By partnering with Innocentive, Sangree said he has tapped into a company that has experience with how to run such contests — how much information the company needs to reveal to the solvers and how to handle issues dealing with intellectual property. By posting its challenge on the SeaFreight website, firms will be able to mask their identities if they like so that their competitors don’t know what they are up to.

The companies say Innocentive has had a 75% success rate in the challenges it has run, far better than traditional innovation or research and development projects. 

Sangree said he is in discussions with several companies about challenges they may post on this website. 

“People are intrigued about using the crowd to solve problems they haven’t been able to solve themselves,” he said.

“The sea freight industry is experiencing continuing pressure to improve services and reliability while lowering costs. It needs to concurrently respond to new challenges regarding its environmental impact and its long-awaited digital transformation. These challenges are massive and multifaceted; they require a new innovation paradigm that can act at a pace never seen before,” he added.

Chris Dupin

Chris Dupin has written about trade and transportation and other business subjects for a variety of publications before joining American Shipper and Freightwaves.