Sept. 1, 2021

#6 - Nakul Malhotra. Open innovation in the maritime industry.

#6 - Nakul Malhotra. Open innovation in the maritime industry.

Nakul Malhotra is Vice President, open innovation, marine products for Wilhelmsen Ships Service. He is an advocate of applying an open innovation philosophy to solve the big challenges of the maritime industry. He believes in ecosystem thinking, and the ability to collaborate with what he calls permeable organizational boundaries. He has been in the marine industry for 25 years covering marine engineering, business management, and even actual seafaring experience. Nakul is an advisory board member for a number of maritime startups and a mentor in incubators and accelerators.

We talk about open innovation and always being “in beta” - both as businesses and individuals. We delve into the mindset shifts that the accelerating pace of change requires for success. AI and Ml play an increasingly important role and we talk about how the maritime industry is, in a sense, a time machine - an opportunity for creative people to apply new technology and business models from other industries.

Highlights and take-aways 

We increasingly live in a world that is always in beta. Things iterate, things change, they get better. We're in sort of this beta world, which is a good release, but can always be better. We ourselves also need to be “in beta” as well, because we've got to be better as well to keep up. 

Businesses in “defense mode” have a strong immune system that “protects”  against change. As customer requirements, industry requirements, regulations, etc. are always in flux, that protection can ultimately bring the business down.

Successfully navigating this always-changing world requires particular skill sets and mindsets. “Hard” skill sets - a degree in X, knowledge about Y, etc - become less crucial. With the growth and acceleration of AI and automation, mindsets like creativity, problem solving, empathy, become much more important. 

We've got to train ourselves to not be satisfied from moving something from the left hand side of our desk, to the right hand side of our desk - we've got as: why is that even on my desk?

Permeable business and individual boundaries is a massive mindset shift. In the New Age digital economy, there is no (single) winner takes all. Particularly in the maritime space, because it's so intertwined with a very complex international stakeholder map. And if there's no winner takes all and there's no winning without sharing, that means that every individual needs to think about how we come into this ecosystem, being able to offer something, and then being able to benefit. 

Open innovation as a concept has been brought forward by Henry Chesbrough. It's a move away from individual organizations having the answer to everything and should therefore close their doors. Open innovation instead means recognizing that no individual business has the answer to everything. We need permeable organizational boundaries that allow us to spin in, or spin out, or collaborate with others, outside the organization or different smaller teams within the organization. The best people have to follow the best ideas, and they should have the ability to come and go.

In the digital space your customers can end up becoming your suppliers, your suppliers can end up becoming your customers, your competitors can actually become your collaborators, and vice versa. In internal corporate ventures [at WSS], some really good core business people came up with those ideas  and they may follow the spin out or, or the JV, etc, to take that to market. It's about passionate talent continuing to work on that idea to take it forward. And in some cases, it doesn't work, in which case, those people need to be safe enough to say: I can come back into the core business. 

Blue Ocean Strategy principles apply here. But open innovation doesn't work for everybody. For example, a company may be actually only looking to become a customer of a startup to have that startup work exclusively with them. That might very well kill the startup. Likewise, startups must carefully vet early corporations before engaging, making sure they are early adopters and are actually ready to work with startups.

Building a digital culture is not about subscribing to more tools. It’s about getting people open to and comfortable with navigating uncertainty and  complexity. 

AI and machine learning will play an increasing part, hopefully becoming business as usual. There's almost no choice given the plethora of data that needs to flow through. We need AI/ML to move from reactive to true predictive maintenance, to obtain supply chain resilience and transparency, and so on. 

The maritime industry is in a sense a time machine. People who have worked in FinTech, InsureTech, deep tech, etc, have an opportunity to step into a time machine by coming to maritime and helping us get to “the future” - i.e. transformations and learnings that have not yet been generally manifested in the maritime industry.

Maritime Makers Quality Quotes

“What was really good yesterday is probably good enough today. And it's certainly not good enough tomorrow.” - Nakul Malhotra

“The ones who are able to thrive in being creative, unleashing that inner creativity, in being able to enjoy problem solving to achieve an outcome and have the ability to empathize with other stakeholders are actually the ones who will move from survival to thrival.” - Nakul Malhotra

“We've got to train ourselves to not be satisfied from moving something from the left hand side of our desk, to the right hand side of our desk - we've got as: why is that even on my desk?” - Nakul Malhotra


Wilhelmsen Ships Service, where Nakul is Vice President, open innovation, marine products.

The phrase I was looking for is “consumerization of enterprise.”Here’sa nice overview of that trend.