Brainstorming is the fine art of finding a way to bridge a gap, create the piece missing from the puzzle or make a way where there once was none. Dreamers are the people who use idea-first brainstorming methods to create a plan. Doers are the ones who make those dreams a reality. The wife and husband team of Deme and Aayush Thakur are the dreamers and the doers that not only brainstormed, but executed the creation of FR8relay, an Arkansas-based nonprofit startup that envisions efficient, profitable, equitable and sustainable trucking logistics.
Startups are unique because there are many ways in which they can begin. From the time the dream conceives an idea to the time the idea is solidified, there are many leaps to implementation. Logistics is the art of solving problems every day, and in the trucking industry, there is a seemingly endless number of issues that could arise.
Long-haul truck drivers are responsible for moving freight across the country, so that everyone has access to the merchandise and supplies they need. The traditional model of transporting in a long-haul method often leaves drivers on the road and away from their families for weeks at a time. According to Aayush, there are many benefits to truck driving, but there are also many sacrifices.
“The normal path to starting a career in truck driving would be about five weeks of training to get a CDL license, work as an apprentice and then drive your own truck, and while it isn’t a two- or four-year degree, it’s still very competitive. A truck driver might find themself in a situation where they make about $30,000-$50,000 a year, away from any sense of connection, sleeping in the cab of their truck and sustaining themselves with gas station food,” Aayush said. “In the ῾70s and ῾80s, a lot of companies moved to being owner/operators, and the problems they faced came down to not having the same access to the same resources as bigger companies. Owners/operators take more risk, and that risk has resulted in some horror stories. A lot of people want to stay closer to their families and miss bonding.”
Aayush also said a common complaint from owner/operators is spending weeks traveling only to have to put their earnings toward maintenance on their vehicles.
The relay model, that is attached to FR8relay’s name, is one that allows trucking companies to move freight across the country — while making a way for truck drivers to stay within a three- or four-hour radius. It comes down to a collaborative model, in which multiple drivers in multiple areas all work together to get the shipments where they need to go.
“This model opens doors to other folks that haven’t traditionally looked at a career in the truck driving world. There are currently huge disparities in women in trucking and other demographics in trucking, and this kind of model opens up this job to people who wouldn’t normally be interested,” Aayush said. “This makes it a shift job; people are able to come back home, live their lives regularly and not be away for long periods of time. Our hope is to bring new people into the workforce by making this more appealing to them.”
Starting out in Memphis, Deme and Aayush moved to Bentonville in 2020, with hopes to expand their dream. In the beginning was a lot of hard work; and while investment came to develop the product, Deme and Aayush hustled to cover living expense.
“We had both quit our jobs, and we were doing two shifts where we would take turns driving for Uber or Lyft for the first six or seven months, and then we got it up and running,” Aayush said.
“Aayush is a visionary in the technology and transportation industries, and he has expertise in the trucking and technology field,” Deme said, noting that prior to FR8relay, she had never pictured herself in the transportation industry. “He was always interested in business, and part of his dream was to make the world a better place for people.”
“When he introduced me to the area of long-haul truck driving, it was really clear that it shouldn’t have to be this way for drivers, and that a relay method could be life-changing for folks. We decided to take the dive and do it full time.”
Deme, prior to starting FR8relay had experience in the nonprofit world, which has been helpful in creating FR8relay, as a nonprofit organization.
While focusing on problem-solving for long-haul trucking, Deme and Aayush also saw the need to reduce empty miles, miles that are accumulated in driving an empty trailer. Benefits of reducing empty miles include attracting which cuts shipping times, creates faster freight and happier drivers.
This last benefit is particularly important as drivers are in particularly short supply these day, a problem Aayush said was not a new one.
“The truck driver shortage is not really a new problem, as it’s been talked about a lot for the last decade or so. The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) does annual surveys of the trucking companies, and this issue has existed for quite some time,” Aayush said.
ATRI released a report on critical issues in the trucking industry in 2021 that highlights a few of the very issues that Aayush spoke of.
“For the fifth consecutive year, the Driver Shortage is the trucking industry’s top concern on the overall list, with more than four times as many first-place votes as the next issue on the 2021 Top Industry Issues list. According to the American Trucking Associations, the industry’s current shortage of over 60,000 drivers could grow to over 160,000 by 2028.”
The ATRI report also highlighted driver retention as the No. 2 industry issue, jumping four places from its 2020 ranking. Other industry issues included driver compensation followed by lawsuit abuse reform – truck parking, CSA, detention and delay, infrastructure and congestion funding and insurance among others.
Aayush also noted that while bigger companies may be experiencing an issue with filling roles, smaller trucking companies attribute the empty jobs to retention rather than hiring.
“Ninety-five percent of trucking companies in the United States have less than 20 trucks, meaning that the trucking industry is run by lots of small business owners,” Aayush said.
Aayush said the issue with smaller trucking companies is seeing less incentive to keep drivers, and drivers have seen less incentive to continue in their roles. In continuing to build the FR8relay method of trucking, Aayush and Deme knew they wanted to create opportunities for small businesses.
“We are trying to build a community-based business by being involved in organizations and talking to local administration of rural areas about what we are trying to accomplish. We wanted to make sure this would positively impact long-haul trucking, and it kind of cascades from there. We have been very lucky in making these connections,” Aayush said. “Our community has been very supportive on both the investor and business sides, and in being connected we’ve been able to create this business.”
Aayush explained FR8relay differs from other startups in the aspect that it is mostly grant-funded.
“We are trying to make this a more sustainable model, meaning that it is taking longer than some startups do, but it is something that Deme and I both wanted to do. One of the things that I am most proud of is hearing enthusiasm about this, because it would be helpful to so many communities,” Aayush said. “We want to be community-driven. That is the exciting part for us.”
In May, FR8relay announced that it was chosen to receive $206,468 from the Department of Energy as part of 259 grants totaling $53 million. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant was awarded for Vehicle Technologies – Energy Efficiency in Emerging Mobility Systems: Developing and Applying Novel Mobility Solutions for Underserved Disadvantaged Communities.
Grant criteria calls for small businesses to develop and apply novel mobility technology solutions as to increase energy productivity for individual businesses. According to a news release from FR8relay, the nation relies on trucking to move 72.5% of its freight.
In September, The National Science Foundation, announced FR8Relay would receive $225,983 as part of its SBIR phase one program.
“As part of the NSF project, FR8relay’s patented technology pools shipments and matches tractors and drivers with trailers and cargo in a relay fashion that ensures equipment and cargo keep moving while driver’s return home daily,” according to a news release.
Other funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture SBIR phase two program. In August, the USDA announced FR8 relay would receive $649,998 in order to further establish its goals in trucking and technology. In phase two, FR8relay is aiming to prove the practical feasibility of relay trucking in the real-world context of American logistics, per news release.
Going forward, the company will further refine its relay trucking model, looking at feasible ways to enhance benefits from logistics, profitability and even the environment.
“In phase two, we are focusing on our ability to reduce emissions and idling while implementing vehicle potential,” Deme said.
Finally, the company’s plan also outlines potential economic benefits to the small towns that lie along relay shipping routes. Thus far, Aayush said, leaders in these communities have been enthusiastic about the potential for relay stations to bring jobs and economic opportunity to town.
“Our first SBIR grant from the USDA [allows] us to look at how our technology could potentially economically benefit major trucking companies in rural towns,” Deme said. “We learned that if we are to place these switching locations in rural communities, we can both improve truck drivers on long-haul trips [and] create more job opportunities.”