Carolien Vat-Sandee, director and co-founder of PortXL tells us about driving innovation for the maritime, logistics & energy industries.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: We are fine, thanks for asking. Luckily, there are no infections close to us. Obviously, we feel the crisis, I have three kids and they are all at home in lockdown, that’s the personal challenge.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded PortXL.
Carolien Vat-Sandee: I worked at EY for a long time and there I started working at HighTechXL, which was my first experience of a start-up accelerator and I really enjoyed the concept and I thought this would be a really good idea to bring to Rotterdam, to the port. They liked the idea, the port authority immediately stepped in and together with a group of corporates started the initiative. Today PortXL is an independent not-for-profit organization with 15 corporate partners and 90 start-ups and scale-ups accelerated through our programs since 2015.
How does PortXL innovate?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: We are all about innovation. As a start-up accelerator, we search for other companies with innovative solutions of course, but we ourselves need to be innovative. Last year with the advent of the pandemic that was very important because a lot of corporates slowed down their innovation activities, so our start-ups suffered as a result. Faced with the challenge to keep accelerating and inspiring the industry to innovate in those difficult times, we set up a digital program, MATCH. We have over 4000 innovative solutions in our database and we unlocked them to the entire Rotterdam port ecosystem and not just our partners, through MATCH.
This is how it works: a corporate submits a challenge and we match them with start-ups that have a solution for them. To both inspire them and nudge them towards working together with start-ups to solve their challenges. That’s how we also are looking toward ourselves to innovate our own processes and keep innovating across the entire sector and reach our mission to innovate ports for sustainable growth.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: We are in a very traditional industry and innovation is not yet part of their organizational models. During this crisis, it was the first thing they cut. Logical, but if you do it for too long you stand still or even fall backward. We started the MATCH program to keep stimulating and inspiring the companies we work with. Fortunately, the sector has been recovering well, so we see again more openness to start new projects and even an increased growth of popularity for the energy transition, which I hope we see take flight in the upcoming years.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: I really believe that business together is creating trust, and that is between people. We bring people together and that is not possible during this pandemic. The first decision was to do everything digitally, as did everyone, but our model was based on in-person interactions to create trust. Although the impact of virtual meetings is lower than physical, we experienced that more was possible digitally compared to physical meetings.
Furthermore, we had to postpone our 2021 program to September, from our usual starting date in March, due to the slowdown and recovery of the industry. We had to take a good look at our budget too, but now we are ready for the program in September, we are currently in the middle of the scouting process and the partners are really enthusiastic about it.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: We had an advantage in that we were already using Zoom before the pandemic, although not to the extent we do now – it has become our best friend! We have also used various platforms for digital events, our final event of the 2020 program, normally called Shakedown, became ShakeUp and our partners still talk about it almost a year down the line about how it was one of the most inspiring digital events they’ve ever attended. As for management, working digitally has been as challenging as working with a young team you need the interaction, the brainstorming moments. I am still exploring digital alternatives, so if somebody has any suggestions, I am open to hearing those.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: There are many start-up programs. We were the first in maritime & ports, but we are not alone in the sector. It is a tricky sector, you need to speak the language of the corporates, you need to understand the change, the politics, and I think that is difficult to get into. Translating the experience from a different sector is challenging, so I think that our status as specialists through 6 years of experience still gives us an edge and helps us bring value. We are expecting more and more start-up initiatives and that is a good thing. We need more activity from start-ups in this sector all around the world.
Your final thoughts?
Carolien Vat-Sandee: To conclude, PortXL is in an industry that has huge potential – ports have a huge economic impact in any country – and it will stay that way for years and decades. At the same time, they are large contributors to the ecology. We need innovation to grow our economy AND sustain the ecology. There is plenty of potential for start-ups here because there are not many on the market, so I would encourage entrepreneurs in other sectors to look into the challenges of our industry and see if your technology has an application for these companies. By applying to our program, you can get into a validation call with our partners to directly discuss your proposition with them, getting immediate feedback on it. Look at what the opportunities are and take a chance I say. Connect with us and see if this is your next growth market.