Portcast founders Dr. Lingxiao Xia and Nidhi Gupta. Image Credits: Portcast
For many manufacturers and freight forwarders, managing logistics is still a very manual process: tracking shipments with a call or online lookup, and entering that data into an Excel spreadsheet. Portcast, which describes itself as a “next-generation logistics operating system,” makes the process more efficient by gathering data from myriad sources and not only tracks shipments in real time, but also predicts what might affect their progress, like major weather events, the tide and pandemic-related issues.
The company announced today it has raised $3.2 million in pre-Series A funding, led by Newtown Partners, through the Imperial Venture Fund, with participation from Wavemaker Partners, TMV, Innoport and SGInnovate. Based in Singapore, Portcast serves clients in Asia and Europe, and will use part of its funding to expand into more markets.
Co-founders Nidhi Gupta and Dr. Lingxiao Xia met at Entrepreneur First in Singapore. Before launching Portcast, Gupta, its chief executive officer, served in leadership roles across Asia at DHL. During that time, she realized the logistic sector’s “inefficiencies are actually an opportunity in this space to create something.” Dr. Xia, who holds a Ph.D. in machine learning and has a background in product development and cloud computing, “was a great complementary fit” and is now Portcast’s chief technology officer.
Portcast says it tracks more than 90% of world trade volume that travels by ocean carriers, and 35% of air cargo, and can forecast demand for 30,000 trade routes. Sources include geospatial data, like satellite data about where ships are, what speed and direction they’re moving in, what ports they are headed for, wind speed and wave height. Portcast also looks at economic patterns (for example, Brexit’s impact on ports around the United Kingdom, and how vaccine rollouts around the world change airline and ship capacity), weather events like typhoons and disruptions like the Suez Canal blockage.
Other data sources include proprietary transactional data from customers including large shipping companies and freight forwarders.
“The challenge for us is how do we let all of this data speak the same language,” Gupta told TechCrunch. “This data is coming in at different frequencies, different granularities, so how do you consolidate that and make sure the machine can start understanding it and interpreting it.”
Portcast’s two main solutions are currently Intelligent Container Visibility for real-time tracking of shipment containers, and Forecasting and Demand Management, which tracks booking patterns. Portcast doesn’t use IoT to track containers since it is cost-prohibitive to place a device in every one, but it is working with IoT providers on hybrid solutions — for example, putting a tracking device in one container and then using that data to help manage the rest of the shipment.
The startup’s goal is to make predictions that help companies improve the efficiency of their operations and reduce their reliance on manual processes. “There are logistics operators with hundreds of cargo coming in every single week, they’re going and checking this manually every day. That goes into an Excel sheet and that’s what the planning of downstream operations is based off of,” said Gupta.
But the COVID-19 pandemic created an “urgent need to digitize, and it’s transformed supply chains from being a cost function to the core of getting products on time, so we work with some of the largest manufacturers as well as freight forwarders,” she added. For example, a food and beverage company in Europe sent a shipment to Taipei, a trip that usually takes about 70 days. But it took more than three months to arrive. Portcast was able to track the shipment as it moved across different ports and ships, helping its customers understand what caused the delay.
“Besides just predicting when there will be a likely disruption, we’re able to pinpoint and say there’s a delay of X days because there will likely be a typhoon or a trans-shipment, and that empowers them because they can tell their trucking and warehousing teams how many containers are going to come in,” said Gupta. “This reduces port fees, detention charges and the number of hours spent on manually checking different company’s websites and trying to figure out what happened to their supply chain.”
One of Portcast’s advantages over other logistics tech startups that want to fix supply chain visibility is that it launched out of the Asia-Pacific region, where ships usually go through multiple ports and have to work around frequent weather events like tropical storms and typhoons. The technology Portcast developed to create shorter voyages between Singapore and Malaysia (for example) is also applicable to intercontinental routes like Asia and Europe, or Asia and the United States.
“Our technology is global in scale and that allows us to compete against other players in this market,” said Gupta. “The other thing that differentiates us is that we work not just with manufacturers, but also with shipping companies, logistics companies and cargo airlines, and that allows us to create network effects. There is a really strong synergy between what’s happening in ocean freight and air freight, and that allows us to understand patterns in the industry and creates leverage for any other company that comes onto our platform.
Portcast’s future plans include moving from predictive AI to include prescriptive AI within the next two quarters. Right now, the platform can tell companies what is causing delays, but prescriptive AI will also enable it to make automated suggestions. For example, it can tell clients what ports are faster, other ships and modes of transport that can help them get around a disruption and how to optimize their capacity.
The company is also planning to launch Order Visibility by the end of this year, a feature that will track containers filled with a specific item. Consumer prices for many different kinds of products are rising, due in part to overwhelmed supply chains. By enabling companies to track specific SKUs in real time, Portcast can not only help items arrive more quickly, but also show how much CO2 emissions each shipment creates.
“Carbon offsetting or carbon trading can only happen once you have visibility into how much you are actually spending, and that’s the piece we can get involved in,” said Gupta. “By allowing predictions like, for example, if you will arrive early, that’s an opportunity for a shipping company to slow down and save fuel like bunker fuel, which not only brings an immense amount of savings, but also reduces CO2 emissions.