Today’s food supply chain is one of the most crucial and complex industries, with many moving parts, often at risk of disruption. Many companies operate in this challenging domain and are perpetually searching for an advantage via comprehensive, scalable, and cost-effective solutions that enhance their business and propel their growth. The complexity of the food supply chain calls for a sophisticated approach, increasingly with AI and machine learning, to address the issues. Yet the skills and resources to deliver on these technologies are scarce.
SWARM Engineering is a rising star that is transforming the way food supply chain companies are managing their key challenges for competitive advantage. With a unique approach to Challenge Management – a specialist aspect of the multi-billion-dollar market for decision intelligence – and offering an array of advanced solutions that incorporate AI, Machine Learning, and Operational Research, SWARM Engineering is rapidly gaining a dedicated band of followers. The company have acquired several prestigious clients and shown multi-million-dollar cost savings with substantial return-on-investment ratios.
Leading the Food Supply Chain – SWARM Engineering
SWARM Engineering began its journey in 2016, with a focus on transforming the way people tackle operational challenges in their business. The company aims to provide foolproof and comprehensive solutions to challenges such as balancing supply and demand more effectively, managing logistics in a highly disruptive environment, or integrating sustainability metrics into core sourcing decisions. These are just a handful of the scenarios where SWARM Engineering can provide value. Their goal is to democratize AI so that any business user can define and solve operational challenges as easily as they might build a report in a BI tool.
The company started by creating an engine that could solve complex combinatorial math problems, using a unique multi-agent + machine learning approach. The team’s initial goal was to give this to data scientists to tackle hard supply chain problems. Through their journey, the SWARM Engineering team discovered that many of their target customers didn’t have any data scientists, or those they had were too overwhelmed to tackle anything new. Thus, paving the way for SWARM Engineering to innovate and simplify AI, to make it available for business users facing operational issues, rather than create yet another tool just for experts.
Because they were building a complex AI product, they found in the early days that it was hard to raise money from business angels, as there is a level of specialist knowledge required to understand the mechanisms behind the company’s technology. This changed as they gained traction and attracted some big venture firms. S2G Ventures in particular have transformed their route to market, not just with capital, but knowledge, and connections into the agri-food space.
What triggered the growth of SWARM Engineering, and established their success and dominant position in the market?
SWARM Engineering first made a name for itself working as part of the Terra cohort of startups in a Rabobank sponsored incubator, on a project for GrainCorp in Australia. This attracted interest from other companies via word-of-mouth and led to several major projects. However, recent interest has been accelerating thanks to glowing reviews of the SWARM Engineering Challenge Modeler which lets business users rapidly define their problems and match them to AI solutions. Since the first demonstration, responses to the new product have been phenomenal, and Holly Self, VP Marketing told us that they have had to manage the rollout carefully with a staggered launch, asking interested parties to register for the early access program.
SWARM Engineering are not shy in discussing the benefits their technology provides. The team aims to show a minimum of 4x ROI and has exceeded this ratio by a good margin on nearly every project, with some customers showing a 15 – 30x return.
What sets SWARM apart?
Many companies have made large investments into their transactional systems such as SAP, Llamasoft/Coupa, Oracle Netsuite, and so on. These are critical foundational platforms on which the business operates. Some firms are also making big-ticket investments in large-scale AI initiatives, building data lakes and machine learning layers to provide insights. These are often multi-year and multi-million-dollar strategies.
In between these two areas is a large middle slice of the organization that is still using excel or google sheets to make decisions, with data extracted from the foundational systems and supplemented by tribal knowledge. SWARM Engineering spoke to the CEO of a global meat production firm who revealed that most of the critical business decisions in his organization were made every day by people using spreadsheets, and he highlighted that AI was simply not reaching or supporting these people. This is where SWARM comes in, providing a new way for those decisions to be made, and giving the people in the middle gap new capabilities and powers.
The SWARM Engineering product suite replaces spreadsheets with an AI SaaS that helps people make better decisions to deliver a huge impact on the bottom line. The software gives these people AI superpowers while leaving them still fully in charge of the decision. The approach aims to augment humans, not replace them.
It all starts by letting those people in the middle of the organization use SWARM Challenge Modeler to rapidly define their problem in business terms, and then mapping this to solutions.
How does SWARM Engineering go a step beyond, and what new revolutionary services are in line?
SWARM Engineering has a bold roadmap and believe the Challenge Modeler and Solution Engine are just a first step. They state that this is only the beginning of what can be achieved in democratizing AI.
Right now, the SWARM Engineering Challenge Modeler is on a need-to-know basis, so you must be invited to use it, or catch a SWARM employee at one of the Agri-Food events where they are handing out golden tickets for access. ‘Commercially, we want as many people to have access as soon as possible’ said Anthony Howcroft, the CEO and founder. ‘Equally, we need to balance the needs of existing customers and ensure they remain delighted with our service. We will not over-extend. This is a managed roll-out.’
Later this year, though, the company will make the product available to a wider audience and you can register to gain early access here: Challenge Modeler Registration.
Leadership at SWARM Engineering
The leadership at a company such as SWARM Engineering requires entrepreneurs that are thorough, innovative, with high energy. They are not only paving the way for change at their customers and in the industry at large, but also act as a source of support and motivation for the team.
The company is led by their CEO, Anthony Howcroft, who started as a Computer Operator for General Foods (which became Kraft). At that time General Food’s most well-known brand was Maxwell House coffee, and it was an interesting opportunity for a nineteen-year-old to run the entire corporate overnight batch processing on IBM mainframes.
Anthony soon moved into the software development team, and worked as a developer for several years, before choosing to move into Sales & Marketing. Anthony has gained valuable experience working for both startups and corporations, and was a co-founder and executive at DATAllegro, the US-based data warehouse vendor acquired by Microsoft. Anthony ended up running Microsoft’s big data team across EMEA for five years, before returning to California to work on a software startup.
The SWARM Engineering team doesn’t have an office or fixed hours, and they don’t have a limit on vacation or even a required computer system – Microsoft or Apple are equally welcome. Instead, they share values; a commitment to excellence, a belief in bringing products to market that can deliver significant benefits to their clients, and an open and honest channel of communication. There is a daily video conference, making sure that everyone is clear on the activities and goals, and are kept up to date on successes and any issues that need fixing.
This approach enables the team to feel connected with the company, its targets and values, collaborating to provide clients with the best possible products and support. They work hard to foster this environment but never take it for granted, staying grounded and focused on the big picture ahead.
“Startups are an amazing place to work if you have the right personality. The opportunities for personal growth are huge, and if things work out the financial payback is pretty good too. I think the best employees do it because they like the independence, the flexibility, and the ability to be part of a close-knit team making something special happen”, Anthony adds.
Anthony’s thoughts on the responsibilities of an entrepreneur?
“An entrepreneur’s responsibility is to change the world, for the better. If you aren’t doing that, why bother?”
He also takes very seriously the responsibility to make a substantial return to the stakeholders; customers, employees, partners, investors – whether they put the first or last dollar into the company.
Anthony’s views on constant vigilance as a need or a strategy?
“Vigilance is a word that conjures up guards on a rampart, nervous, alert for danger. I’m not sure that’s how many of us want to live. In a corporate environment, should you rabidly defend your IP, guard your customers against raids by competitive vendors, and chain your employees with aggressive non-compete clauses? Some companies do, but I think it is better to create value, push forward, and keep innovating. I don’t want to be constantly looking over my shoulder, I want to be looking forwards to a bright future.”
How does Anthony deal with the competition in the market, on a professional and a personal level?
“The pace of life never seems to slow down, especially as an individual in a startup. It is an adage that people should follow their passion so that work is a joy. There’s truth in that, I love doing many aspects of my job. I’ll tell you, though, I’m not a big fan of reading large legal documents or modeling multiple cashflow scenarios. There are times we all need to unwind. I think sport, music, and reading are all great options.”
Anthony runs twenty miles a week and plays the guitar for half an hour each night. While he states that his reading is now restricted to weekends and flights, Anthony still manages to get through 40 or more books a year, and published his own non-fiction book recently called Questions – A User’s Guide, which became an Amazon bestseller. He tells us that much of the research for that book, and many of the learnings, are being rolled into the SWARM Challenge Modeler.