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2015: The year the sharing economy went B2B

From transportation to real estate, the past year has ushered in a sea change in who is buying and selling underutilized assets.

Over the past few years, startups pitched as alternatives to individual mass consumption — Uber, Airbnb, Zipcar and the rest of their sharing economy cohorts — have become big business.

In industries ranging from transportation to hospitality to finance, companies fusing underused assets with peer-to-peer online marketplaces are booming.

Financially speaking, six-year-old ridesharing giant Uber leads the way with its professed $62 billion valuation, fueling the "Uber-for-X" phenomenon of copycats across industries offering everything from on-demand auto mechanic services to a slew of new marijuana delivery options.

Convenience always has been at the heart of the consumer case for these offerings. Now, however, another audience is growing much more attuned to the potential financial and operational benefits of jumping on the sharing economy bandwagon: corporations shopping for better business-to-business services.

Take transportation as a prime example of this shift. Uber and Lyft initially changed the game for on-demand consumer car rides, but upstarts such as Cargomatic are offering similar on-demand products for businesses in need of commercial services such as short-haul trucking. With Cargomatic, companies theoretically could avoid purchasing and maintaining a local fleet, or directly hiring a contractor, instead using the on-demand service when necessary.

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and several other companies operating in the collaborative economy space, said the big opening for new business-to-business service models stems from the combination of a desire to more efficiently use physical assets and unprecedented access to a larger pool of potential buyers offered by online marketplaces.

"If you look at excess capacity, I love it because it's so resource and cost efficient," Chase said at the VERGE 2015 conference earlier this year in San Jose, California. "Just imagine the value that can be extracted by harnessing excess capacity on these platforms for participation."

Beyond the startup rush, the platform model also already is inspiring new incarnations of other corporate-focused sustainability initiatives, such as online business marketplaces for materials that could be repurposed.

What it all ultimately might mean for concrete environmental impacts, such as carbon emissions or energy use, remains unclear. Corporate supply chains operate at massive scale, but independent projections remain hard to come by in the nascent field.

The birth of the B2B sharing economy

Like its consumer counterpart, the budding field of shared commercial services is vast and varied in its potential environmental and economic impacts. (To be clear, "sharing" means short-term rentals in almost all of these cases, although total costs to the user and revenue for the seller depend on the product at hand.)

Fields involving the sharing of large assets with significant carbon footprints — think cars, trucks, industrial equipment and buildings — are at the top of the list for sustainability advocates enthusiastic about the industrial sharing economy.

Like Cargomatic, many of these companies operate in the logistics sphere. Yard Club, an equipment rental upstart backed by machinery manufacturer Caterpillar, is one example. Flexe is a startup offering shared warehousing space — an idea also eliciting competition from incumbent 3PL providers.

Also in play are fields with less direct, but still notable, impacts on a company's environmental footprint. New types of on-demand labor outsourcing platforms, for example, could affect how many offices a business regularly using such a service ultimately operates.

By also sending existing service providers scrambling to maintain an edge over their new on-demand competitors, the rise of the corporate sharing economy is likely to breed more investments and acquisitions by incumbents. Aside from Caterpillar's backing of Yard Club, Zipcar's $509 million 2013 acquisition by rental car giant Avis Budget Group provides another potential blue print.

Of course, the originators of the sharing economy marketing bonanza are also hoping to better crack the code for corporate buyers. Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and their myriad competitors all increasingly offer options tailored to those with the luxury of a corporate expense account, potentially reducing the need for company-owned car fleets or existing lodging arrangements.

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