The PropTech Report: An Open Frontier For Hardware Entrepreneurs

Two constants have guided my professional life: venture capital and real estate. Every year, I eagerly await to see which portfolio will produce greater returns. Today, in the  words of the great (fictional) New Yorker George Louis Costanza, “Worlds are colliding!”  Enertiv, a New York Angels investment, keeps growing with an impressive client list of property managers and building owners. The smart building hardware startup is the latest in a slew of new property technology (PropTech) innovations disrupting the $16 trillion realty market.

Screen Shot 2019-12-11 at 2.28.30 PMOver the past six years venture capital dollars deployed into PropTech have grown from $730 million in 2013 to close to $16 billion this year. In turn, this has birthed a formidable herd of unicorns, including: Trulia, SMS Assist, Compass, Kattera, Uptake Technologies and Desktop Metal (to name a few). Equally impressive is the cadre of backers that represents the gambit of industry giants from Softbank to Starwood to Brookfield Asset Management. In the words of PropTech VC, Brendan Wallace of Fifth Wall, “In the last three years, real estate technology has arguably created more enterprise value and spawned more unicorns than any other single industry sector in venture capital.” While values have exceed expectations, most analysts still think the market is in early innings, leaving the door open for more billion dollar enterprises. This week I reached out to three PropTech AI entrepreneurs recognized for their contributions in revolutionizing the landscape of property management, construction and hospitality.

Smart Buildings

While tourists gawk at New York City’s brilliantly lit skyscrapers, building owners are nervously attuned to the hum of their basements supplying tenants power and heat during the busy winter months. Although many software upstarts have streamlined leasing and accounts payable activities, there is still an overwhelming amount of physical plant information recorded by hand. As energy consumption is reaching peak levels with rising occupancies, profits are declining due to increased service calls to meet demand. Most equipment failures start as small (untracked) problems, before racking up thousands of dollars in labor fees and overtime charges. To alleviate these challenges, Enertiv’s sensors digitize heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment to maximize usage and predict maintenance failures. As SL Green Chief Operating Officer, Edward Piccinich, explains, “With Enertiv’s data, we were able to see significant savings from implementing simple optimizations, such as shifting interior supply fan schedules by a few hours.” These tweaks included $15,000 in savings from “delaying the startup time of interior supply fans from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m” and  “$17,000+ in savings from installing VFD’s on a condenser water pump and a chilled water pump.” According to the company’s case study, “Beyond that, SL Green and Enertiv identified another $138,000 in potential savings at 919 Third Avenue. The next steps include expanding the scope to capture more equipment-level performance data, as well as identifying opportunities to deploy IoT sensors to track additional data streams such as temperature and humidity.” If SL Green would apply the cost reductions from 919 Third Avenue across its entire portfolio of 93 buildings, these saving would amount to over $12 million annually.

The success of predictive maintenance companies like Enertiv is reflective of a new attitude by commercial real estate owners. In the words of the startup’s founder, Connell McGill, “Landlords can no longer get away with providing four walls and collecting rent checks. Owners are worried about anything that negatively affects their tenant experience, such as elevator entrapments and indoor air quality or temperature issues.” In today’s competitive leasing environment, compounded by the growth of co-working spaces and short-term leases, McGill describes how a fleet of new unmanned systems is being embraced by owners, “There is certainly an uptick in demand for autonomous solutions in the market, although we are still early in the deployment. Drones are being used to automatically survey construction sites, robots are taking 360 and LIDAR scans of tenant spaces and mechanical rooms, and an ever increasing number of processes are being automated.” Enertiv’s entrepreneur states that it is not just about automating electrical meters and HVAC systems, it is about connecting the entire building structure to the Cloud. “And it’s not just equipment. One salient example of literally keeping operators up at night was one client that would pay their engineers overtime to sleep at their buildings during the coldest nights of the year in case a pipe froze and burst, a disaster scenario. Instead, we’re deploying temperature sensors at critical points in the buildings and giving operators warnings well ahead of time so they no longer have to sleep on site,” reports McGill. This trend is further validated by Enertiv’s success in signing up such notable landlords as AvalonyBay Communities, Equity Residential, Prologis, and Related Companies. 

Construction Management

At ff Venture Capital we have two drone investments in speeding construction workflows, SkyCatch and CivDrone. However, in densely populated urban centers an unmanned aerial vehicle is not practical, nor can it provide a continuous data loop. Still property owners, architects and construction crews demand a 24/7 birds-eye view of the site. Today, everything in the work zone is being connected to the Internet – from safety vests to power drills to terrestrial equipment – creating an overwhelming amount of information to decipher. However, the crane has eluded project managers as the single solution to provide 360 degree operational awareness. Israeli-startup Versatile Natures is transforming these towering machines into smart IoT devices, collecting field data and improving onsite safety. By delivering real-time actionable data, Versatile increases bottomline performance and reduces crane accidents. Last year alone, 44 people were killed and 175 injured in the United States due to cranes.

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Meirav Oren, Chief Executive of Versatile, details her IoT solution, “The data we capture gives our users smart insights that support them in making better decisions. Decisions that improve budgets, speed up site production and sets new standards in safety, learning, and team performance.” Similar to Enertiv, Oren boasts, “We are working with some of the country’s biggest and most ambitious GC’s to increase site production rates through powerful data insights.” For Versatile’s founder it is not just about the proprietary sensors, but the application of the technology by her team of experts. As Oren asserts, “Many of our team grew up in construction and are motivated to make it better. With our practical background in the industry, we have navigated the needs of the site team with deep technology and robust tools.” In her words, the company’s value proposition is simple, “We transform construction professionals into superheroes and construction into a truly controllable manufacturing process.”

Automating Hospitality 

The hospitality industry is in panic mode, as 1 million jobs across the country remain unfilled in the industry. According to the Business Insider: “The number of guest rooms rose to 5.3 million in 2018 — but with a 66.2% occupancy rate and the seasonally adjusted number of accommodation and food service job openings at 6.1%, there aren’t enough workers to keep things running properly.” In speaking with Pace Cooper of Cooper Hotels  he opined, “Our biggest challenge remains recruiting and retaining talent. How technology can alleviate the stress of this challenge is something we know will be available in the future, but is not obvious in providing options currently.” His son Jeremy added, “Therefore, some big steps are eliminating housekeeping and front desk labor as well as programs that automate revenue management.” In Japan, the Henn-na (“Strange”) Hotel famously showcased a humanoid staffed front desk, less gimmicky many operators in United States are already upgrading their receptions with self-serve kiosks in place of employees. Housekeeping is still one of the most critical guest amenities, but comes at a high cost of $22 per room per day. As more hotels rely on online travel agencies (e.g., Booking.com, Priceline, Expedia, etc) that take 15% commission, many operators are running on razor-thin margins.

In 2016, Maidbot introduced an industrial-strength robot vacuuming cleaning product to the hospitality industry to increase property performance. Rosie (inspired by the Jetsons) is already being implemented by several large hotel brands as the first step towards automating housekeeping. Micah Estis Green, Rosie’s creator, characterizes his innovation as “essentially a mini self-driving car that focuses on cleaning carpeted areas of commercial real estate – from hotel guest rooms to corridors to office space and airports.” In addition to sucking up dirt, the roboticist brags of its other important features including collecting “actionable data on the operations and environmental conditions for the operators to improve efficiencies and the guest experience.” Green claims that this enables hotel staff to spend less time physically cleaning the room and more time bolstering “guest satisfaction scores,” in addition to expanding the “lifetime of the asset (carpets) in the respective properties.” He further reflected to me that his robot is actually improving the working conditions for employees as many cleaners have “reported a reduction of discomfort and pain – from calluses on hands to pain in shoulders and wrists.”

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Proptech is the first line of offense in transforming urban communities into Smart Cities. McGill of Enertiv confided, “I can see a world where buildings essentially manage themselves. Every possible issue will be predicted and resources will be deployed dynamically.” He further shared, “In the future, we’ll see autonomous vehicles connected to warehouse dock door for traffic controls and last-block robotics distribution. Maintaining this distributed system will have to be sensor-based and predictive, something we’re laying the ground for today.” This metamorphosis will turn real estate assets into pulsing technical hubs, complete with rich data, dynamic sensors and buzzing bots keeping tenants happy. As Green predicts, “Robots are best for tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous. To me, the best service is taken care of before the guest even has to ask.”

Going to CES? Join me for my panel on Robots and Other Humanoids at Retail January 8th at 10am, Las Vegas Convention Center. 



Categories: AI, Autonomous Cars, Business, drones, News, Retail, Robotics

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