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Q&A: Smart Containers’ Richard Ettl on Blockchain, Pharma, and How His Company’s Hardware and So

Smart Containers may not be a household name but given the inroads it’s made in the food and pharmaceutical industries, it may only be a matter of time.

NexChange’s Andrew Work recently sat down with Smart Containers’ CEO Richard Ettl to talk about the company, it’s products, the blockchain, Amazon, and what the Switzerland-based high-tech startup is up to right now. Here’s the interview:

Thanks for sitting down to talk Smart Containers. But first up, I notice it is Smart Containers, SkyCell, and FoodGuardians. What does each do and what is the relationship between these brands?

Thank you for having me. Smart Containers Group is the parent company of SkyCell and FoodGuardians. We developed an insulation and cooling technology with close to 100 patents, which stores 5x more energy than the market average. We saw that pharma and food do not want to share their equipment and decided to build separate brands. So SkyCell the pharma application has grown in the last 5 years to the 4th largest provider of containers to transport high-value temperature sensitive products. We are now launching food application as we have a couple of interesting opportunities.

Smart Containers CEO Richard Ettl with a FoodGuardian cold chain container

Some people say blockchain is a solution in search of a problem. What is the real problem you are solving with your application of blockchain?

Many technologies are not fully understood when they came to market – adoption takes time. When the first IBM computers came out, IBM estimated that the world need would be 5 computers. It was Steve Jobs’ vision to put a computer in everybody’s home. Now we have the performance of a computer of 2000s in our cellphones…

Blockchain is looking for the breakthrough. 99% of protocols are at an alpha or beta level. And as with all new technologies people are experimenting.

We are using blockchain to track our containers and in the future make them autonomous – which eliminates all need for a person to chase after it. Image a car rental company, where you rent online, pick the car up, return it etc, no waiting in line, no interaction required with people. We are doing the same for our containers. This reduces overhead and makes it more economical.

What competitive advantage does the use of blockchain confer? Who are your competitors from the ‘old’ world that you aim to disrupt and why should they be afraid?

In our case massive cost reduction of administration of assets. Container management is a niche market, we couldn’t find a suitable solution so we built our own asset management solution. That’s why we also understand what is required to build such a system on the blockchain.

We recognized we are building a system which solves a larger logistics problem, so we are creating a logistics ecosystem – LOGI which solves the most important part of logistics – information flow. Today done by mail, phone and some ERP integration. Here the blockchain as a trusted third party can extremely efficiently take over at a fraction of the cost.

You are currently raising funds to invest in new solutions. What solutions have your developed and put in the field, and what is next to come?

We are raising funds through an ICO to grow our container businesses in pharma and food. We push SkyCell from no. 4 to the no. 1 provider in the next 2-3 years.

We are launching also additional sizes – so we are launching a very small box to ship pharma directly to patients homes. Amazon just recently announced that they will postpone entering the pharma distribution space, as they do not have the technology to ship to patients homes in a temperature controlled manner. We are bringing this to market later this year. This will increase the convenience of patients and reduce the costs in the healthcare system.

We are launching our first food application – we will announce a collaboration before June for a solution that can be used to ship overnight online fresh food to people homes and can be used to supply hospitals and restaurants as well.

Smart Containers co-founders Richard Ettle and Nico Ros holding IoT sensor-equipped SkyCell containers

Is this a trade finance solution, a logistics solution or something else?

We are a technology company for the transport of temperature sensitive goods. We are not a logistics company and we do not finance trade – but we support these players becoming more efficient.

You started in Pharma and expanded into food, using your expertise. If Amazon started as a bookseller, where do you see Smart Containers going?

The potential in pharma is big – direct to patient alone will be a USD 2.5bn opportunity. Food is even bigger as consumers want things to be shipped to their homes. Now we are collecting a lot of data – we have collected so far more than 1.3bn datapoints about pharma logistics – so there could be a data element in the future – like offering an insurance solution.

Would you describe Smart Containers as an IOT firm, a fintech firm, both or something bigger?

We are a tech company that combines hardware and software in a new way with the goal to increasing the safety in distribution, reducing cost and the CO2 foot print.

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