"The last great analog frontier." With new growth round, Windward sets sail to digitize the high seas

By Mick Weinstein , written on April 27, 2015

From The News Desk


It seems that we’re rapidly approaching the point at which all important activity on planet Earth will be captured for immediate analysis. Airline crashes caught spectacularly by dashcam. The polar ice cap regularly measured by specialized satellites. Shocking police violence recorded by citizen smartphones. Ubiquitous digital surveillance draws us inexorably toward the panopticon.

So it’s surprising to learn that we actually know very little detail about what’s happening on fully three quarters of our planet’s surface. The high seas carry 90% of world trade, but the available data on marine vessels is fragmented, lacks a unified protocol, and, it turns out, is often unreliable due to manipulation by shady boat crews.

That’s the problem that Tel Aviv-based data startup Windward is out to solve. Founded by former Israeli navy officers Ami Daniel and Matan Peled, Windward announced today a $10.8 million financing round led by Hong Kong’s venture powerhouse Horizon Ventures, which is closely associated with tycoon Li Ka Shing. Former Windward investor Aleph (which provided Windward’s $5 million Series A) joined the financing, and Windward added two other notable figures to its inner circle: Tom Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters personally invested and will join Windward’s advisory board, and former Israeli army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is also joining the advisory board.

I sat with Daniel at a Rothschild Boulevard cafe to hear more about their business and how they got started. “From our navy days, Matan and I knew a whole lot about the lack of structured and reliable sea vessel data,” he explained. “It’s something we - and most active navies - always struggled with.”

Israel aims to track regional arms shipments closely, as clandestine deliveries to hostile neighbors can have major security repercussions. But as the technology behind ship location data is seriously antiquated, the challenge of placing order on oceanic chaos has never abated. “The high seas are the last great analog frontier,” Daniel declares.

A little background on ship tracking: In 1960, to avoid the growing problem of sea collisions, the United Nations devised a unified method for vessels to broadcast their identities and whereabouts to other nearby vessels. The Automatic Identification System (AIS) became the de facto standard for such VHS signal beacons, which can reach significantly beyond radar’s 20-30 nautical miles. Yet despite the fact that in 2002 AIS became mandated for all vessels, no global mapping system for AIS data existed for its first 50 years. At-sea safety remained its only use case.

Only in 2009 did the first commercial satellites become capable of picking up AIS beacons well enough to map the whereabouts of vessels across broad stretches of ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard and financial interests launched or financed these satellites, but there have never been enough reliable satellites for any one institution to obtain clear and accurate insight on the whereabouts and identity of all vessels in a highly tracked region - let alone the entire globe, where over 100 million AIS signals emanate every day.

In stepped Windward in 2010, deploying its seed - and later, Series A - capital to licence all available global data feeds on vessel whereabouts and identities, normalize that disparate data, and generate a presentation layer for in-depth analysis of both seaborne trade trends and individual vessel intelligence including current cargo. Like Dataminr for the Twitter firehose, Enigma for government data, or Premise for hyperlocal, real time economic data, Windward aims to create an actionable signal in its vertical from big data noise.

Along the way, the Windward team recognized that a growing portion of global marine traffic actively misrepresents its identity and/or location via their AIS transponders. Some of these are illegal fishing boats (which trip up Google’s Global Fishing Watch with false data), while others are clandestine arms traffickers, or oil tankers that hope to hide their shipments from global trade trackers.

Those financial analysts are the first of two planned customer bases for Windward’s data offering (Daniel stresses that “we’re a data company, not a service company.”) Global macro and commodities hedge funds are always hungry for an actionable informational edge, so if Windward can demonstrate that it consistently provides a more accurate window on world shipping than what’s available through raw AIS data, it could become a vital service for institutional traders.

The other market Windward targets - and where it already has a significant paying customer base according to Daniel - are security and intelligence agencies. “Windward is currently being used every week by numerous intelligence and law enforcement agencies for critical decisions on marine operations,” he says.

Yet every sale is a challenge in this conservative sector, where pensioned jobs are structured around the old way of doing things. “Security agencies’ first reaction is usually that they want to build solutions themselves, or they’ll just shrug and say ‘that’s impressive, but we just don’t do things that way.’ So we have to show them actual examples from our live data - suspicious vessels or activity that they hadn’t identified yet. That’s impossible for them to ignore.”

Another challenge for Windward: the sales cycle differs greatly between intelligence agencies and institutional finance. Decision makers at hedge funds need to hear a vastly different story than you’d offer in a pitch to government or military brass. So Windward will need two different sales teams to scale sales in both markets. And the all-important feedback loop for iterating on its product may prove difficult from both target markets, which are by their nature highly secretive.

But Windward already has a compelling product. To this layman, it’s mesmerizing to play with what they call the ‘Windward Mind’ - a wow moment like the first time you opened Google Earth - and they’ve already attracted some of the best data scientists and engineers in Israel. The addition of Glocer on the finance front and Ashkenazi for security will certainly help open doors for deals in those sectors.

So with this new gale behind them, Windward is well positioned to become an essential resource to its target markets - and move us all closer to the digitization of everything on this blue planet that matters.

[photo by Patrick Nouhailler]