Port Innovation Hubs, what’s the point?

In an everchanging and increasingly digitalized world, ports face significant challenges in maintaining their efficiency and competitiveness. Innovation is considered a key success factor to adopt new technologies and improve the management of port operations. Embracing it is a necessity for ports to thrive in these volatile and uncertain times. Open Innovation initiatives are at the forefront of this trend: dynamic environments where collaboration, technology and creativity converge. Without a doubt, there are mostly tangible results of Open innovation in ports. Nevertheless, in some cases, it can turn into a waste of time and resources.  

Successful cases of Open Innovation Hubs in ports  

An open innovation hub, in any industry, is more than just a physical space: it is an ecosystem that fosters collaboration between diverse stakeholders. They act as catalysts for transformative change by promoting the exchange of ideas, resources, and knowledge between institutions (port authorities) companies (Terminal Operators, private intermodal platforms, logistic companies), startups, academics (universities) and government agencies (customs). Their ability to attract talent and their focus on digital transformation must ensure that the players of the port ecosystem remain competitive, adapting nimbly to changing market demands and securing a leading role in the global maritime trade and logistics landscape. 

The key to success of Open Innovation Hubs rely on some fundamental practices. Promoting a culture of openness, collaboration and experimentation is paramount. Facilitating access to infrastructure, resources, experts and dedicating specific budgets to PoCs and Pilots creates an environment conducive to innovation. Some reference players have taken strong initiatives investing in Open Innovation. Below, we describe some of the innovation programs where AllRead participated. 

  • BCN Port Innovation: It is a private foundation of the Port of Barcelona. Dedicated to transforming the maritime-port sector and promote the energy and digital transformation of the Port to achieve the principles of the blue economy. BCN Port Innovation aims to address the challenges of the port industry by harnessing technological advances and fostering a culture of innovation. Its success can be attributed to its collaborative approach, bringing together diverse stakeholders to co-create solutions that improve the efficiency, sustainability, and competitiveness of the port. [AllRead was part of one of the hub´s first projects alongside the Port of Barcelona], applying its technology to detecting and reading the codes of Container security seals. 
  • Innovation Harbour Cologne: This initiative is part of the HGK Integrated Logistics Group in Cologne, Germany. It is dedicated to catalyzing innovation in the supply chain and serves as a platform where start-ups, industry stakeholders, venture capital companies, science institutions and government agencies collaborate to drive business innovations. By facilitating the exchange of knowledge, the access to resources and the involvement of industry experts, Innovation Harbour Cologne creates a conductive environment to set up new supply chain solutions through tailormade co-creation procedures. [AllRead and HGK successfully tested a lightweight crane OCR solution in the facilities of CTS in 2022].  
  • Bilbao PortLab: Bilbao Portlab aims to be the space to unite the needs identified by the companies of the Port Community to transition to a Ports 4.0 model, with the ideas of entrepreneurs, start-ups, doctoral students, and researchers in the sector. In short, Portlab wants to contribute to promoting an environment and climate of innovation in the Port of Bilbao by providing the necessary means so that ideas and projects that provide solutions to real problems in the sector can prosper. The Port of Bilbao Innovation Center has a co-working space for start-ups a room for conferences, presentations, and demos, and an area open to client and supplier visits. As part of this innovation dynamic, [AllRead and Bilbao Port have been collaborating since 2019] to automate various road and rail accesses in their premises. 
  • Algeciras Port – Innovation Journey: This is the name given to the innovation culture and management program of the Port of Algeciras (APBA), whose objective is to transform itself into an organization where the ability to learn, innovate and improve is integrated and systematized, in order to guarantee the future competitiveness of the Port. Within this program, [AllRead first carried out a POC] to extract data from Moroccan license plates in 2019. Building on this first experience and on a pilot that followed, AllRead OCR is now being rolled out in various road and rail access points. 
  • Valenciaport Foundation: Fundación  Valenciaport  is  an  Applied  Research,  Innovation & Training centre providing services to the port and logistics cluster. This initiative of the Port Authority of Valencia (Spain) has enjoyed the collaboration of notable businesses, universities and institutions from  the  port  community.  Since its  establishment, it has developed projects in more than 60 countries, primarily Mediterranean nations, as well as from the rest of Europe, Asia and Latin America. Among its many activities, the following stand out: Promotion of innovation, promoting the design, implementation and execution of R&D projects. Knowledge management, offering specialized training. Market Intelligence Service for the development of indices, databases and reports of strategic interest to the sector. AllRead started collaborating with the Port of Valencia in 2023 with the automation of one rail transport access and is now implementing the system in ten road and rail accesses, integrating the information with the Port Community System (PCS) and customs. 
  • Startport Innovation platform: StartPort in Duisburg, Germany, focuses on supporting startups specifically in the logistics and transportation sectors. It provides a nurturing environment that offers mentorship, networking opportunities, and access to industry expertise. StartPort connects startups with potential corporate partners and investors. It bridges the gap between startups with disruptive ideas and established players in the logistics industry, facilitating collaboration and the implementation of innovative solutions. 
  • La Lonja de la Innovación:  La Lonja de la Innovación is an initiative of the Port of Huelva that promotes the digital transformation of the port sector, with the aim of boosting socioeconomic development through collaboration between companies, institutions, and entrepreneurs. The Port Authority of Huelva and Telefónica provide entrepreneurs and companies with two programs to work on the innovation and digitalization of various projects. The Business Accelerator Program dedicated to projects with Technological innovations and the FIWARE Tech Program, which includes mentoring and technical support to help integrate and develop solutions based on FIWARE technology. Last year, [AllRead started with a pilot to test the software] with one camera on three road lanes to read container codes and license plates. 

Barcelona Port Innovation and AllRead’s OCR Technology

The results of open innovation projects are not only beneficial to one player, but to the whole industry. For instance, thanks to the close collaboration of AllRead with BCN Port Innovation, AllRead has been able to improve its product, and discover alternative use cases for its AI-powered solution. AllRead’s OCR technology streamlines processes, minimizes errors and optimizes efficiency, showcasing the immense potential of partnerships within these hubs. 

Miquel de la Mano, director of the Port of Barcelona’s Innovation Hub, points out that this successful collaboration arose when, together with the Hutchison Best terminal, a need was identified to digitize the reading of container seals. At this point, AllRead became a strategic partner, providing the necessary technology to meet this challenge. 

“Now, AllRead and Hutchison Best not only have this project underway but are also exploring other use cases that require Computer Vision and Artificial Intelligence.”  

Miquel de la Mano, BCN Port Innovation Director

Why some Open Innovation initiatives fail. 

Like any strategic initiative, open innovation can be a waste of time and resources if managed poorly. For us, at AllRead, we identified three main reasons open innovation programs sometimes do not bring value. 

  • Top-down approach: when the innovation objectives are defined by senior management and are not sourced from the operational layer of the company. The risk of not involving the employees in the decision process are ill-defined goals, an inexistent business case and resistance to change down the road. For a startup, engaging in a project to finally discover there is no alignment between the internal parties can be very frustrating.  
  • Insufficient Resources: Open innovation requires time, personnel, and financial investments. If these resources are insufficient or misallocated, the initiative may not yield the expected results. Startups do not work for free. Our rule of thumb is: if you are not ready to pay for it, it means it doesn’t matter to you.  
  • Risk aversion: Trying something new entails risks: the risk that it won’t succeed, risk to lose money, risk to lose face. Among the strategic objectives of innovation hubs, the “innovation culture” is often mentioned: A safe environment where an initiative is valued, and failures are not condemned. Without this crucial cultural element, fear will push the company constantly in its comfort zone and path dependency. This is not only true before launching a PoC or a Pilot, which is executed in pre-production. It is particularly true when it comes to deployment. The consolidated company must give the startup a chance to demonstrate its reliability, and eventually guide it towards compliance.  

The importance of Open Innovation Hubs in Ports. 

Nonetheless, by leveraging these initiatives, ports can unlock a myriad of benefits, overcome challenges, and seize opportunities. They become hotbeds for testing and implementing cutting-edge technologies such as AI, IoT, robotics, VR… streamlining operations, improving security, and promoting sustainability. In addition, these dynamics facilitate cross-functional teams collaborations (Operations, IT, field, finance…), accelerate the adoption of technology and position ports as agile, future-ready entities. 

At AllRead, we firmly believe in the value of collaboration between the established players of the Cargo industry and startups, to drive digital transformation to ports and terminals of all sizes. This is the only way we´ll be able to follow our mission and democratize smart access automation solutions for the Port’s ecosystem worldwide. 

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