When you bring people together, something magical happens

03 June 2019
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Making waves #3

In Rotterdam we are continuously searching for answers to make the port smarter, more efficient, better and more sustainable. How have partners in the port addressed this, why, and what could they have done smarter?

Carolien Sandee is director of PortXL.

Carolien Sandee
Carolien Sandee

‘There’s nothing I like better than making plans and developing new ideas. A few years ago, I was involved as a business developer in a successful programme for hi-tech start-ups at EY. I wanted to do the same for the port of Rotterdam, which comprises so many sizeable markets. This led me to co-found PortXL in 2015. I’ve served as the director of the programme since November 2017.

PortXL is an accelerator programme that helps start-ups in the port and maritime industries to prepare for a market entry in the space of 100 days. PortXL offers these businesses mentoring, trainings and an ecosystem of companies, investors and partners that can support them in their ventures. On the final day of the programme – the Shakedown – the start-ups present their business plans to potential clients and investors. And of course, by this time we also hope to see a few signed contracts. If people are prepared to pay for an innovation, it usually means it is a viable concept. Companies are looking for young talent and want to invest in new enterprises, but they are often wary of the risks. And start-ups miss the network they need to successfully approach larger firms. Through PortXL, we aim to build a bridge between the two ends of this spectrum – so they can grow together.

For me, a truly smart port is one that can grow and create added economic value without disrupting the local nature and ecology any further. The participants in PortXL are all enthusiastic, engaged people who are committed to developing smart solutions in this area. The best ideas are those that make you wonder why no one ever came up with them before. A good example is the innovation developed by Hans Kooijman, one of the participants in the 2018 programme. He has worked in the port his entire adult life. Cleaning the inside of a dry bulk carrier is hard work, and expensive. Hans developed a machine that uses a high-pressure, pulsating jet to clean the surface. Hans participated in our PortXL programme together with his daughters and son. Supporting and advising their family business, The Big Smile, was a unique experience. And the fun thing is that we still talk with each other quite regularly.

PortXL is a trend-spotter: we’re at the forefront of new developments in the maritime industry. During the first few years of the programme, the start-ups mainly focused on sustainability; last year the big trend was blockchain. This year’s theme seems to be new energy: participants are working on smart new implementations of technologies like hydrogen power and tidal energy. I firmly believe that we can raise the sustainability of our port even further. While this doesn’t mean that we’ll have converted every vessel in the port to hydrogen by the end of next week; if we don’t start innovating today, we won’t be where we need to be in ten years’ time. We need to start small and learn from start-ups’ experiences and flexibility.

2019 is also the first year in which we expand our focus to include scale-ups. We can see considerable need for support among companies that want to enter a new phase of growth. This year, 5 start-ups and 11 scale-ups will be participating in our accelerator programme. And you could say we ourselves have also progressed from start-up to scale-up. We started with a team of 5 – today we have a team of 15. And in 2018, Port XL also opened offices in Antwerp and Singapore.

The very first year, we spent a lot of time preparing for an event. Everything was perfect – from the location to the décor. Afterwards it became clear we should have devoted more time and attention to actively inviting people. We’ve become smarter in that respect. And we’re reaping the rewards: our last Shakedown event was attended by some 500 guests. I’m already looking forward to the next Shakedown on 20 June in Rotterdam. New technology and innovation always starts with people. I firmly believe that when you bring people together, something magical happens.”