Success story - Sailsense: artificial intelligence and machine learning for boat owners

Nicolas De Laet and Yannick Vereerstraten met at Solvay Brussels Schools of Economics and Management in 2003. One was already an enthusiastic sailor. The other was yet to sail. The former converted the latter and many crossings later, they created Sailsense together, a start-up offering a navigational aid system.

Tell us about how Sailsense came into being.

Nicolas De Laet: Yannick and I have been considering various business models related to vessels for some years now. In late 2016, during an Atlantic crossing, we began to consider this project much more seriously. I had already left my job before embarking on the trip, he did the same on our return from the Caribbean. This is how Sailsense became officially established in July 2017.

What makes your concept original?

NDL: Navigation in the broadest sense is often considered fairly complex, technical, difficult, dangerous even. After analysis, we reached the conclusion that we could make the difference and contribute added value based on our previous professional background by facilitating the technical monitoring of the boat as an object. Of course, maintenance aid systems do exist for very large container ship type vessels. But these are complex, costly machines that aid a team that is largely devoted to maintenance.

When it comes to pleasure vessels, it is an entirely different thing: as in the case of aeroplanes, there are users who pilot and, in the case of leased fleets, for example, engineers who take care of maintenance. We had the idea of using the data generated by the vessel’s systems to make life easier for the skipper, as well as for leasers and insurers, in short, everyone not on board the vessel. Our customers are therefore not the sailors themselves, but the aim is to reach them and make their lives simpler. So we had to devise a specially formulated product.

We are now entering an era in which objects are becoming sources of data and transmit information on their status, interacting with one another and with other systems over the Internet. Sailsense Analytics fits perfectly into this dynamic of the Internet of things (IOT). Connected objects simply send data, whereas intelligent objects are capable of taking decisions by themselves. We seek to make vessels connected and intelligent.

Did you find setting up a company easy?

NDL: We always knew we would set up a company at some time or other. I worked for five years in strategic consultation and another five in retail, but it was always clear to me that at some time or other I would take the leap. Over the last ten years, I have had to draft 10 ten or 15 advanced business plans. It is all very well having an idea, but in actual fact, this is only 5% of the entire project.

The important thing is making it take shape, being surrounded by good people, having the resources, the skills, the time, the mental energy and it being the right time. Personally, I think that you can’t dive into entrepreneurship alone, it is essential for there to be at least two of you. Being an entrepreneur is a real life project from which you learn an enormous amount. I think that in general in professional life, if you don’t say to yourself, “Today I learned something new” every day, you need to change job. Sailsense Analytics and entrepreneurship bring me this new dimension of learning, of discovery.

Have you had to face any difficulties?

NDL: Difficulties are just the start of it! We have encountered plenty of difficulties. We needed a product that works in order to demonstrate it. Developing a website is quick and easy. The hardware is far less so.

But first you have to manage your own expectations. When you launch a start-up, instinctively you operate on 110 m hurdle mode as you need to move fast, get going. Actually, you need the capacity for endurance of a marathon runner on a daily basis. And to succeed, you need to be able to run a marathon like a 110 m hurdle event. It’s a real learning experience, difficult but absolutely vital. The only way to succeed is to really love what you do. At least, that’s what drives me.

In large organisations like the ones I began my career in, you really don’t realise how lucky you are to be surrounded, supported by departments specialised in human relations, marketing, development, etc. With a start-up, if you don’t do things yourself, nothing happens. Finance, human resources, marketing, all that is difficult, and time- and energy-consuming. You have to become a one-man band and find a way to take everything forward at the same rate. It is unthinkable to attend only to one area to the detriment of the others. Once you manage to keep this balance and the project is healthy, everything fits together pretty well. But the more time passes, the more difficult it gets. A start-up is a bit like an aircraft: if you pull a little on the joystick, the plane climbs gently. If you pull too hard, it comes down. You have to find the right angle at which to climb for the capacity of the engines which are financing, networks and key resource people. And if the next aircraft has more powerful engines, it will climb faster and more powerfully in any case.

I think the risk that most entrepreneurs in Belgium and Brussels must be watchful for in particular is a question of mentality: our Latin culture does not value failure at all. That is an enormous cultural damper on entrepreneurship.

Even so, any helping hands?

NDL: I was really deeply moved and positively surprised by what was able to offer us. We were welcomed straight away and with open arms by an ultra-competent team who knew their job inside out. An ultra-positive dynamic was immediately established which continues to this day: we exchange a number of emails per week, we are particularly happy to see each other or bump into each other at events. They take an interest in what we are doing, know exactly where we are with it, they know our latest concerns, our new developments, put us in touch with people.

We are now on the board of cluster software which brings together a number of companies and universities. It is very enriching and highly motivating. We reflect on Brussels policy with a real desire to develop the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Brussels.

Any projects in the pipeline?

NDL: In terms of hardware, the development of our terminal is nearly finished. In terms of software, without going into detail today, we are working mainly on artificial intelligence and ‘machine learning’, creating algorithms capable of learning by themselves and anticipating certain problems that may occur on a vessel. We will provide more information on the product and its functional capabilities in June.

At the same time as this, we have a lot of interest from large customers with whom we are going to begin working, trying again to get the right balance as large customers means a lot of vessels. We need to manage our growth, so we are keeping certain potential customers waiting. We are a Brussels start-up and proud of it, but the Belgian market is not big enough. So we have our sights set on European markets.

And if you were to give one piece of advice to an aspiring entrepreneur, what would it be?

NDL: Don’t go it alone! This is what I say to my friends who are tempted by the idea of entrepreneurship. If there were not two co-founders, the adventure would have come to an end a long time ago. This dynamic is really necessary, as well as being able from time to time to have the support of another person in whom you have complete trust and with whom there is no rivalry. Two heads are better than one, who do not have the same strengths and weaknesses but balance each other out; holding back or encouraging each other depending on the circumstances creates a solid base on which mountains can be built; new employees, partners or investors can be attracted. To my mind, two or three of you means two or three times the energy in one body, in order to become this super-athlete who otherwise would not exist.

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