Posted on April 26, 2023
Rhode Island-headquartered digital marine services AI startup company Attender is ramping up operations, following its latest successful round of investor funding.
Attender CEO David Dolan, a former ship manager, has spent the last two years presenting the Attender AI vision to VCs and private equity firms with major breakthroughs coming in the last six to 12 months. He says investors are being attracted by Attender’s robust business model with relatively few competitors in the market. A particularly attractive opportunity for Attender is America’s rapidly expanding U.S. offshore wind industry.
“We are offering a fully transparent digital platform where shipowners and wind farm operators can access a wide range of marine services at speed online,” he said. “We’re fortunate to have backing from companies like Moran Shipping and by combining our knowledge and network we are able to give clients access to reputable marine services providers across the U.S. In the U.S., we know the system for accessing marine services is broken. The fees charged are not always transparent and it can be incredibly cumbersome to find vendors manually. I know this I have been there. Attender’s platform is the fast tech solution, we cut out the middle man and the hidden fees.”
Dolan says offshore wind is a natural home for Attender’s services as America seeks to build 30GW of power by 2030, requiring an estimated at 2,100 turbines in total. Estimations suggest the sector will need to build about nine 14-megawatt (MW) sized turbines per week during installation season every year starting in 2023 through 2030. But Dolan cautions that the gold rush for wind exposes operators to steep costs and stealth charges unless they are careful.
Dolan, and others in his field, have developed a street-sense for which marine services vendors to choose, at which ports and this has major benefits for ship operators and wind farm clients alike. Finding the right vendor can even influence which ports a vessel will call at, experience which has served Dolan well in his various seafaring and shoreside roles, operating and managing deep-sea cargo vessels. But he is concerned that, lacking this expertise, the U.S.’ brand new offshore segment will falter if its new generation of American seafarers have to rely on a limited network of contacts. As every cab driver in Dolan’s New York hometown knows, there is no substitute for ‘the knowledge’.
“So let’s say you have a life raft renewal due, and you’re calling in at Houston, Texas,” he suggests. “There are 20 companies that do the service. But who is the best choice to service your Viking Life rafts? Maybe seven. Of them, which has the best reputation? A lot of the time you’re walking around in the dark.
“They can overcharge you, give you a final cost well overrunning the original quote. People do not realize that an important part of any service job is taking the 15 emails and five phone calls necessary to source a particular part. I remember a job in Mobile, Ala., where 48 different emails went back and forth with vendors—ridiculous.”
These are the challenges addressed by the new Attender platform. Attender leverages AI as matchmaker, refining the process of choosing which service providers to recommend to a vessel, owner, or fleet. The initial input is a blueprint of each vessel, and an inventory of the equipment on board, replete with data on service and maintenance intervals. In the case of Attender, Dolan explains, the AI is far from a buzzword, and will in fact perform a pivotal role in the service, matchmaking each vessel with a service provider in port.
The most important part of the system is the AI “training”—which will empower it to make ever-cannier decisions over the course of its development. “The AI engine is not fully up to speed yet—but it gets smarter with each transaction,” Dolan admits. “That is really how AI works, generally speaking.
“Right now we are following the Flexport model, where you have people working behind the scenes, smoothing out the curves, ‘cleaning’ the data. So when a client joins us they can be assured of human oversight.”
Some of those to sign up to Attender include Crowley and Foss Maritime, two of the biggest names in the U.S. Jones Act market. They, too, are weighing in with their own expertise, as are A.R. Savage, and various other U.S. players, meaning that new entrants to Attender will benefit from their accumulated knowledge, as well. “They’re active participants in the Attender platform,” Dolan explains.
“A key aspect of ship services today is not the cost itself – it’s time. Charter rates are dictating the services and the time element. Having a qualified vendor come on board, making sure they are actually on time and doing the job properly, sourcing all the right spare parts equipment in time. If you’re operating an LNG ship right now, you’re operating on a premium you might spend that waiting for a $12 part.”
Attender will also help to smooth things over between port operators and vessels, Dolan says—a relationship which can be tense, at times. “Right now, when you come into port and you don’t pay your tugs, line handlers, pilots—you cannot leave the port, they lock the ship down. So a lot of owners will come in, give a disbursement of $100,000-$200,000. The agent will require them to pay, in full, the workload for the vessel. With Attender, the vendor is empowered, because we will be behind the scenes, ensuring they get paid on time. So it incentivizes vendors to get on board with us as well.”
Mindful of the fact that AI has developed a reputation for supplanting business’ human touch, Dolan believes he has found a use case for this technology which, in fact, achieves the precise opposite—one that will help to make the Jones Act market a much friendlier place for the offshore wind’s “new kids”. “Helping them along is great for our business model, and it is also a part of who we are,” he says.
“Obviously our mission is to optimize the AI as much as possible, but we never forget that there has to be a ‘human in the loop’. That’s why we have older captains who are knowledgeable and can speak intelligently to our customers about ship operations, bow and stern, engine room and deck and let the technologists work on the AI.”