Kindly take us through the journey of becoming the prominent leader in the Food Supply Chain industry?
SWARM Engineering was founded in Southern California, to see how a multi-agent system could take advantage of the latest AI and IoT developments to solve problems that were common in business, but hard to solve with traditional IT. Challenges like product formulation or blending can involve trillions of potential combinations, as can many common supply-chain processes like supply and demand planning, or logistics. Finding a great solution to these problems or even just a ‘good-enough’ solution, can take days or weeks with even the most powerful computers, and some particularly hard problems are mathematically not solvable in the lifetime of the universe. You must take a different approach instead of classical analytics, and SWARM was founded to tackle this domain.
We picked up some early customers in the grain business, and then food produce, and saw that the agri-food supply chain was undergoing a digital transformation to cope with outside pressures such as changing consumer demands, vertical farming, alternative proteins, and an increased visibility and expectation on sustainability metrics. More forms of data were also appearing, like sensor systems for growers, streaming data from robots and drones, and location information via vehicles and containers. The extra data offered the opportunity to make new, better-informed choices that promised a reduction on costs and increased revenue, while simultaneously threatening to overwhelm the workforce with more complexity and confusion over how to make the best decisions. This was the market we chose to enter, as it was the perfect storm in terms of needs, capabilities, and potential impact we could deliver.
How does SWARM Engineering diversify its offerings to entice the target audience and other potential sectors?
Initially we built a platform for data scientists. Very quickly, we discovered that our customers had very few (if any) people in the data science role, and the few we met were swamped with requests from their internal customers. It reminded us of the nascent Business Intelligence (BI) market, where people with skills in writing reports became a bottleneck for managers looking to gain insight into their department operations. Over time, that market evolved to give BI tools directly to end users, empowering them to create their own reports. We believe the same will be true in AI. We decided to build a tool that would let any business person define their own challenge, and have AI solve it for them automatically. Our goal is to democratize AI. The SWARM Challenge Modeler was launched for that purpose this year, and the reaction has been incredibly positive.
We have remained true to our core market of agri-food, but have seen increasing requests to support adjacent markets such as water, timber, shipping, and bio-fuels. Since our platform is agnostic, it is only a matter of time before we branch into some of these markets to offer the same benefits to new sectors. We are a startup, though, which means we will do this carefully, to ensure we can continue to deliver a high level of service to all of our customers.
What are the vital traits and methodologies every budding start-up or service domain should follow?
Every company follows its own path and strategy, influenced by many sources. Some of our key influences have been the Crossing the Chasm books by Geoffrey Moore, which are still required reading for any CEO, along with The Innovator’s Solution by Christensen & Raynor, which is gospel for disruptive innovation. Many of our cultural aspects are direct lifts from the entertainingly written fables by Patrick Lencioni, such as our daily standup meetings – these days via Zoom or Microsoft Teams! At SWARM we also have our own guidebook, which is Questions – A User’s Guide, written by our CEO, Anthony Howcroft. It took him seven years to compress and research the ideas in the book, which looks at the art and science of questioning. He explored the use of questions by different professions such as teachers, sales people, psychiatrists, and on to animals, aliens, and especially AI systems. Some of the techniques and methods described in the book have become fundamental to how our software efficiently helps people capture relevant information to describe a business challenge.
What are the roadblocks and difficulties SWARM Engineering has faced in the corporate business? And how did you overcome them?
Like any startup, the beginning is tough, as you juggle limited resources with early proof points. Building an advanced AI platform is not for the faint-hearted, and it took a couple of years running on a shoestring, cashing in pensions, with staff sometimes paid in options. The company wouldn’t have got this far without the vision of far-sighted business angels who could see the future potential. Today, we are backed by some prestigious venture firms and academic funds, and the contacts, knowledge, experience, and financial muscle that brings to bear is transformational.
Have SWARM Engineering or its employees contributed towards the welfare of the society?
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in agri-food is the benefits you can bring to society. Our core capability is optimizing processes in the food supply chain, and whether that is supporting the expansion and supply of new, healthier foods, or reducing food waste and increasing freshness in traditional staples, it feels good to work in an area that benefits everyone. Recently, we have been working to ensure sustainability measures are directly built into companies’ optimizations, and not added as an afterthought. A few years ago, we came across a port that had two managers; one was handling the operations – ships coming in, trucks and trains going out – and the other oversaw minimizing the environmental impact. Frequently they were in conflict over decisions. We realized that by combining the environmental constraints and factors into the core operational processes, we could actually improve both the performance of the port and make a much bigger impact on achieving clean-air goals, which in turn was a significant health benefit to the people living in and around the port community. This approach of merging sustainability and regenerative-ag values into everyday decisions is something we are extremely focused on, and is being very well received by all the stakeholders in each process.
How do you cope up with capricious technological trends to boost your companies and its employees’ growth?
Technology is our friend, and we are excited by the new approaches and ideas that come to market at an ever-increasing pace. One key aspect of SWARM’s architecture is that we don’t have any fixed algorithms coded into our platform. We use a curated library of solutions, and we are always looking for new, better ways to do something. Because we separate the problem from the solution, our customers have the option of seamlessly switching from one solution to the next without changing even the user interface. We recently switched out one customer’s solution for an alternative, practically overnight, and increased the annual savings by nearly $500,000, thanks to a new algorithmic approach identified by one of our academic partners – Virginia Tech.
In the future, we are hopeful that quantum computing solutions will become generally available. It is still early days for this technology, but they promise to solve challenges that are almost intractable today. We are beautifully positioned for this, since you will still need to define the problem that you want to solve, and SWARM Challenge Modeler is uniquely placed to do this, and then you will want to call and manage the QC solution, which can be handled by our SWARM Solution Engine. Even though the technology hasn’t made it to market yet, we are ready to take advantage of this, and our customers won’t be stuck with legacy approaches when this breakthrough arrives.
What are your future endeavors/objectives and where do you see SWARM Engineering in the near future?
We are raising more money this year, and will use the funding to expand the number of challenges and solutions we have in agri-food, and also to target some adjacent markets. For us, though, this is the year of the SWARM Challenge Modeler, and we will be working to help organizations of all types improve the way they think about defining and solving problems. We have an exciting extension to this planned for next year, but you’ll have to wait for news on that!
How pandemic hit you and what are the precautionary measures SWARM Engineering follows to overcome the time of distress?
We were already operating a hybrid office environment when the pandemic hit, and we made the simple choice to switch to fully virtual. The primary advantage of this has been the ability to hire the best candidates for a role, wherever they are based. Which meant there was very little direct impact on the way we could operate. We had been using asynchronous software tools and video calling technology for several years, so there was barely no transition required, it all felt very natural.
Our customers, being agri-food companies, saw a major uptick in business, although many suffered a range of disruptions – from the loss of key packaging items to the well-publicized delays at ports, and shortages of labor such as truck drivers or agricultural workers. In some cases, this made it harder to get attention and IT support for joint projects, but in every scenario it highlighted the need for our software and the ability to automatically cope with disruption in core supply chain processes. Our software is built on a multi-agent technology, which is how nature manages complex, disrupted processes. Think of ants or bees foraging for food and then having to bring items back to the nest or hive, overcoming a range of obstructions. That is a multi-agent system in action. It’s highly effective at achieving goals even with multiple issues, and that is how SWARM works.
Elucidate on president’s/CEO’s career growth and journey.
Our CEO, Anthony Howcroft, was raised in the UK on the outskirts of Banbury, a large rural and agricultural setting famed at the time for hosting the largest cattle market in Europe. He was a software engineer for several years, before transitioning into sales & marketing for technology vendors. He has worked at a variety of major corporates and startups, and was co-founder of a data warehouse company in Southern California that was acquired by Microsoft in 2008. Anthony subsequently led the Microsoft Big Data Sales, Marketing & Partners team in EMEA for 5 years, before returning to California to focus on launching software startups, ultimately founding SWARM Engineering. He previously studied at the University of Oxford, and is a prize-winning author of fiction, and published his first non-fiction book, Questions – A User’s Guide, which hit the Amazon best-seller lists in 2020.