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Inside the tech startup that tackles terrorists and is backed by an ex-CIA director

Ami Daniel and Matan Peled, Windward1WindwardWindward’s co-founders Ami Daniel and Matan Peled.

Europe is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II and most of those seeking asylum are arriving by sea on smugglers’ boats.

The EU is surrounded by 66,000 kilometers of coastline — 110,000 kilometers if you add in the UK and Scandinavian countries. It’s not easy monitoring all that territory. On top of that, there are major issues around maritime security, such as terrorism.

It’s pretty easy to slip past radars and there aren’t a whole host of other ways to monitor threats. That’s what Ami Daniel and Matan Peled found out when they both served as naval officers.

The pair co-founded the Israeli startup Windward to solve this problem in 2010 after getting out of the Navy. It uses technology that can identify suspicious maritime activity and has bagged investment from the former Director of the CIA General David Petraeus, former Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer, and even Horizons Ventures, a fund backed by the richest man in Asia, Li Ka-shing. The startup has 60 employees and intends to grow to around 90 by the end of the year.

Business Insider caught up with Windward’s Ami Daniel talk about how the company started working with governments in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and how its technology can be used to help Europe handle the reality of today’s security threats at sea.

Business Insider: Windward was founded in 2010 — how did the idea come about?

Ami Daniel: My co-Founder, Matan Peled, and I had both served as naval officers and saw, firsthand, a really interesting juxtaposition: ship activity across the oceans has a massive impact on nearly every sector — from finance to security to the environment. And yet, there is surprisingly little visibility about ship — and cargo — movements worldwide.

This lack of visibility might be somewhat counterintuitive, as most people just assume that in 2016 we have a clear picture of just about everything. However, the maritime domain is a bit of an enigma.

Until 2010 there was simply no data on ships once they sailed beyond the range of the radar. Since then there has been an explosion of maritime data, as various data sources are now picked up by satellites or have come online. However, we are still flying blind: the data is massive, fragmented, and, perhaps most surprisingly, very easy to manipulate since it is based on human input and has no vetting mechanisms.

Essentially, we realised that the oceans are a Wild West of sorts, leaving decision makers with little solid data on which to base their decisions. That’s where the idea for Windward came in. We are bringing data sciences, powered by deep shipping expertise, to the maritime domain and making sense of the data, for the first time, for decision makers across industries.

BI: Who are your investors and who are your customers?

AD: Our customers are governmental agencies — navies, coast guards and the like — who need to identify threats at sea, often with little or no previous intelligence. We are now bringing this data to the world of finance, where the focus is on the commodities carried by the ships, rather than the ships themselves.

We are starting with unique data on seaborne crude oil, replacing today’s proxies and speculation on oil flows with data on the reality of what’s happening at sea.

Windward’s investors are Aleph, a leading Israeli venture capital firm, and Horizons Ventures, a fund backed by Li Ka-shing. Private investors include: General David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA; Tom Glocer, the former CEO of Thomson Reuters; and Dan Senor, the co-author of best seller “Start Up Nation”. The total investments amount to $17.3 million (£11.9 million).

BI: What are the main threats to maritime security?

AD: The biggest threat is the complete lack of visibility on ship activity beyond each country’s ports. It’s safe to say that, for the most part, what happens at sea, stays at sea.

This is the result of a problematic combination: little regulation and enforcement on the high seas combined with data that is unreliable at best. Unfortunately, people are using this wide open back door for terrorist, criminal and financial gain.

What’s more, as countries around the world deal with terror threats — and many European countries are an example of this — they are securing their borders and cracking down on terrorism, likely pushing more lawless and terrorist activity to the ungoverned oceans.

A ship originating anywhere in the world, including those that seem innocent and have no previous track record of transgressions, can impact a country, which means that countries need to be analysing all ships all the time to detect threats on time. But the sheer volume of ship activity — over 9,000 cargo ships and tankers entered Europe in January alone — is staggering and makes it is nearly impossible, without technology, to identify the specific threats out of a literal ocean of vessels.

BI: It’s a bit crazy that there isn’t more available systems or data on this subject. Why don’t governments have more efficient technology related to this?
AD: Governments are using very sophisticated methods and cutting edge technology to identify threats on land.

However, in the maritime domain many agencies are still using ‘old school’ tactics that focus on tracking known threats, ships that are already on ‘black lists’ because of past offences or specific intelligence ‘tips’.

In reality, however, ships originating anywhere in the world can pose a threat or can engage in suspicious behaviour, such as ship-to-ship transfers before entering port. So you need to be looking at all ships, all the time to identify threats.

But this is far from trivial. First you need to have a complete picture, which involves fusing data from multiple sources, correcting the corruption in the data, and flagging the manipulation. And then you need to make sense of the data by putting it in context. We do this by constantly analysing a ship’s behaviour relative to its own past patterns, to the patterns of a given geographic area, and to shipping economic principles. And you need to do this at scale.

Given the stakes at sea and the volume of ship activity, technology is critical to bringing visibility to the maritime world. And given how new, complex, fragmented and unreliable maritime data is, it requires tens of thousands of highly skilled work hours to solve this technological challenge. This is what we do, and it is our sole focus.

BI: Europe is in the middle of a refugee crisis and the UN said 1 million asylum seekers arrived by sea alone last year. What examples have highlighted how important it is to have this technology?

AD: The lack of visibility, and need for technology, is clear across the board, from illegal immigration to smuggling to terror.

At the end of the day the problem is always the same: ships can declare one thing and do another, with very little oversight or consequence.

And without employing technology that looks at all ships, all the time, and analyses their behaviour relative to their own past behaviours and a whole set of other factors, it is nearly impossible to truly know what is happening outside of your waters and identify the threats before they reach your shores.

BI: Even if suspicious activity was spotted, what difference would it make to secure borders? For example, if you saw a suspicious boat coming into Greece with refugees, you can’t just turn them back right?

AD: Security is about knowing what is coming your way, well in advance. When a security or intelligence agency is notified that a suspicious ship is headed towards their shores, they are able to actually prepare and take action.

At the moment, there is so little visibility on what happens at sea that many ships engaged in illegal activities easily enter ports and pass through borders completely undetected.

BI: What governments and corporations are you working with and in what capacity?

AD: The Windward technology was first designed for government agencies responsible for identifying and responding to threats at sea. Windward’s intelligence solution is in wide use by security agencies including navies and coast guards across Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

With 90% of the world’s trade shipped via the oceans, there are obviously very significant financial stakes at sea as well.

We are now bringing our unique data to the world of finance, where there is tremendous interest in accurate data and analytics on the world’s global commodity flows. So, for example, when the P5+1 reached the agreement with Iran over the summer, there were many questions about how much oil Iran had stockpiled on oil tankers, known as floating storage, in the Gulf.

Given our data on ships and cargoes, we were able to replace the guesstimates that were out there, which ranged from Iran having 10 million barrels to 40 million barrels on ships, with an actual number (54 million barrels). We have an open website where anyone can see how much oil Iran has on floating storage in the Gulf right now, how that amount has changed over time, and get real-time alerts any time oil leaves the Gulf. This data has been widely quoted in the media and Windward has become a go-to source on Iran’s floating storage.

BI: So, what are the goals for Windward in the near to long term future? Who are you targeting as a growing customer base?

AD: We will continue growing our Intelligence solution, used by navies, coast guards and others who need to identify threats at sea.

We are now bringing unique insights to the world of finance — hedge funds, commodity traders, banks — who are interested in the world’s global commodity flows. We will also continue building our proprietary maritime data platform, which is the engine behind everything we do and where our real ‘secret sauce’ lies.

More broadly, a huge ecosystem is impacted by what’s happening at sea — finance, shipping, ports, insurance, oil & gas, risk management — but today no one has visibility. As a result, the applications of our data are truly endless, as we are disrupting multiple industries by bringing visibility to one of the world’s most influential but least understood arenas: ship activity across the oceans.

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