Cognauship: Setting sail for sustainability in the maritime industry

Shipping companies all want to become more sustainable, but the question is: how? Dirk Degroote of the Nijmegen-based company Cognauship inspires captains to reduce their emissions and costs by mapping out the fuel consumption of ships. “Using energy more sparingly is the only real lifeline we have left to reach the short term climate targets.”

The demand from the market was clear: tugs want to sail more sustainably and more cost effective. But they often struggle on how to do it. In his previous job, Dirk noticed the demand, but couldn’t offer an easily applicable solution. So, he decided to set sail for new horizons. Together with Noud Seegers, he founded the company Cognauship. “My work comprised of many meetings, away from home, long days and regularly travelling. I wanted to get my hands dirty again, and at the same time, spend time with my family.”

And that is exactly what he got, albeit in a different way than he anticipated. “In February 2020, we officially started working at the Noviotech Campus. That lasted for about a month, and then we went into lockdown. When everything came to a halt, my thought processes continued. Of course, it wasn’t what I had in mind, but it gave me the time and space to spend time with my children without responsibilities to an employer. It also allowed me to think long and hard about how to realize the solution I had in mind. All in all, it was exactly what I needed.”

Sailing sustainably

All the thinking led to a unique Internet of Things (IoT) solution, based on monitoring and thoroughly analyzing the movements and exhaust sounds of the ships’ engines, resulting in the identification of potential savings. It sounds simple, but behind the scenes there are a lot of steps to be taken, as it is a long way from sensor data to insights. “Think of data like Lego blocks. When the data comes from the ship, the blocks are scattered all over the place. I use specially developed algorithms for ships to sort them by size and color and then use these blocks to build a house that fits the customer’s needs, which is easy to understand and provides actionable insights. They just see the house, but it took a lot of steps to get there.” We distinguish ourselves by covering this complete path, where most of the competition just offer the raw data and the platform. Let’s say they provide the box of Lego, whether sorted or unsorted, but the customers have to figure out themselves how to build the house. And they lack the personnel and experience to do that.

“It’s no longer about a lack of desire to become more sustainable. Companies often just don’t know how to go about it or cannot figure out a solid business case. We don’t do it for them, but we empower them to become more sustainable and determine the business case, so they can move on. For most ships, it’s not even a major intervention. A few small changes can improve operational efficiency with fuel consumption savings of 10 to 30%. This often involves sailing at lower speeds or adopting different sailing techniques, but also logistic integration and optimization. A few years ago we had this campaign for more sustainable driving in The Netherlands; Het Nieuwe Rijden, which can be seen as a similar solution. But we focus on water.”

Important connections

Dirk was already quite knowledgeable in his field, but starting a business is a different ball game. “In the early stages, I benefited from Briskr’s help in finding other entrepreneurs and experts to exchange ideas with. A critical, outside view can help so much. It’s a reality check: is what we’re doing really relevant? When the answer is ‘yes’, it boosts your confidence to keep on going.”

Dirk is well-known in the towage industry, so his first assignment was with an important player. “We were able to test our prototype at the Port of Antwerp-Bruges. And when that went well, other companies were inspired, too. The Municipality of Nijmegen also made enquiries  about our services to get a better understanding of emissions of ships passing The Waal in Nijmegen and wanting to boost a Nijmegen-based company.”

The municipality’s investment turned out to be worth its weight in gold, as many other companies followed suit. “The events of Briskr and Oost NL and our offices at Noviotech Campus contributed to success as well. This is where we can build our network.”

A sustainable future

“We are quite the odd one out at the Noviotech Campus. Before we arrived, there were no companies representing the maritime industry, even though the industry is quite present in Nijmegen. We started with tugs and now, due to market demand, we also help inland vessels. In our backyard, The Waal, some 300 ships pass by every day, making our work highly relevant here.”

As far as Dirk is concerned, his job is not meant to be relevant forever. “My dream is that everyone in the barging and towing industry becomes aware of how to sail sustainably and act on it by 2030. Preferably with our help, because that would mean we can make impact. If everyone chips in, the climate goals for our sector will be within reach. And that is the goal right now.”