It was only five years ago that James Coombes and Nisarg Mehta established a company based on the emerging capabilities – not to mention the cool factor – of artificial intelligence (AI).
As CEO Coombes explains it, he was immersed in the operational problems associated with financial services, commodities and trade. CTO Mehta, by contrast, was focused on the solutions that would use AI to digitize and standardize many of the functions that had previously relied on manual human efforts and were susceptible to human error.
Grasping both the problem side and the solution side made for a well-rounded partnership. But the focus was mainly on the solution – all the amazing things AI could do – rather than starting with a focus on the problems of industry.
The London-based technology company has a decidedly global focus, with 85 employees scattered between its London headquarters and satellite locations in both mainland Europe and the United States.
“Most companies in the UK are UK-first, and then they think ‘oh maybe we should be global’,” Coombes says. “Our first investors were in Tennessee, so I would say we’re global native. We started global, and I’m quite proud of that.”
After spending five years perfecting the use of the technology, particularly to help supply chain participants like freight-forwarders, Coombes and Mehta decided to rebrand Vector.ai as Raft in recognition of an important shift. Today they start with the customer pain points and then think about how the technology can help, rather than starting with the technology and figuring there must be a good use for it.
“The AI piece is an enabling factor,” Coombes says. “But it’s being almost subsumed, and is secondary to a broader focus, like integrations, and how does somebody do that? It’s becoming a lot more about the overall value-add.”
The precise application of the new name is open to interpretation. It could refer to various pieces of wood floating down a river, which might relate to strength in numbers. Or perhaps a raft represents an easier way to ride the current without so much manual effort, much like the way Raft’s AI applications eliminate the need for time and effort in the service of what could be routine tasks – even as simple as responding to e-mails, or to manual interaction with a company’s transportation management system.
Two recent examples bring home the point. In June 2022, Raft (then Vector.ai) won a contract from freight-forwarder HBI to automate workflows across the client’s accounts payable, customs and pre-alert operations. Raft’s mission was to embed automation throughout the process so human effort would not be needed for basic tasks the AI system could learn to handle.
“There’s a lot of human activity on behalf of freight-forwarders, and we’re bringing that into a digital realm so we can provide transparency in line with visibility,” Coombes says. “If we have a commercial invoice, we can understand all the line-items in the commercial invoice and enrich the visibility within the context of what’s actually being shipped. Today, freight-forwarders don’t really know how to do that.”
In another move, Raft partnered with Pledge.io, a London-based company that offers technology to calculate companies’ carbon footprints. With Pledge’s technology fully integrated into Raft’s user interface, forwarders can use automated workflows to satisfy regulators by reporting their full carbon footprints at the shipment level, even breaking down the impact so it can be attributed to specific SKUs.
Coombes says one of Raft’s priorities is to help supply chain and logistics companies standardize the data they’re dealing with.
“There’s this holy grail of everyone wanting to have this data visibility,” Coombes says. “But where it falls down is you have to have some kind of standardization rigor across so many participants, players and modes. In practice, it’s hard to do. People make this massive assumption that everything is standardized. But unless you’re Amazon and you’re vertically integrated across all things – and you have complete control – the permutations are infinite.”
So Raft has figured out how to use AI to understand data in different forms and standardize it, without the people involved in the process having to put thought or time into it. Applications like these are designed to take AI from the “cool technology” realm into a place where it’s tangibly helping to optimize a company’s operations.
It’s all part of the maturity of a company that was immediately wowed by what its technology could do, but over the course of five years came to appreciate what companies across a stressed-out supply chain needed it to do.
“Suddenly five years ago you could do something you couldn’t do before, to use AI to tackle bits of a market that were always considered to be impossible to do anything about,” Coombes says. “Before it was impossible (for AI) to take a transcript of something and understand it, or to take a document and understand it. And we’re still making incredible leaps and bounds. If you follow text to picture and video and so forth in the AI field, it’s all being driven by real advances in machine learning.”
And for Raft, a new era has driven real advances in understanding how AI functions as the solution to real tangible problems that are confronting the supply chain industry.
Dan Calabrese is the President of North Star