ULI Toronto News

ULI Toronto Symposium 2018: Exploring the rapidly emerging world of proptech at Toronto’s innovation hubs

By Danny Tseng, SYLLABLE

The following is a recap of one of the 11 city tours that made up ULI Toronto’s Symposium 2018. On November 7th, hundreds of urban professionals from the region and beyond came together to explore the leading edges of North America’s fastest growing metropolis, exposing the contemporary tensions and innovative approaches to building a global city region.

A key emerging trends in real estate, proptech is defined as all innovation at the intersection of real property and technology. It describes the changes in how we invest, operate, build and use real estate. As part of the ULI Symposium, a unique “conference on wheels,” the proptech segment of the event kicked off at Evergreen Brickworks with a keynote address by George Carras, CEO and founder of R-Labs. The tour was an exploration of ideas, local companies and personalities in the GTA leading the charge in the emerging proptech industry poised to disrupt the broader real estate industry.

Since 2014, disclosed funding for proptech has risen from $1.3 billion to $5.2 billion, indicating the rapid growth of the early stage real estate tech market. These tech companies aim to deliver solutions to address climate challenges impacting real estate, the “sharing” economy, and smart building construction, to name a few. The mandate for proptech is to harness technology not just for technology’s sake, but to use data to make informed human-centric decisions.

Led by Geoff Olsen, Director of Partnerships at Enwave, attendees were ushered to a tour bus to the next leg of the event at Sidewalk Labs’ Queens Quay location. Under Alphabet, the parent company of Google, the New York-based startup imagines a future where technology and urbanism unite to help create a world-class waterfront neighbourhood in Toronto. The directive to use technology to serve the public is inherent in Sidewalk Lab’s vision for a highly sophisticated smart neighbourhood in the city, one that is measured by a sensor network and served by progressive approaches to residential, retail, energy, and transportation solutions.

In a panel moderated by Joe Berridge, Partner at Urban Strategies Inc., Kristina Verner, Vice President of Innovation, Sustainability and Prosperity at Waterfront Toronto, and John Brodhead, Director of Policy and Strategy at Sidewalk Labs, shared their “secret sauce” behind Waterfront Toronto’s 12-acre development plan. The team looks at how the urban and digital can fit together to address affordability and sustainability all while incorporating and enhancing new services. The project sees Toronto as a test lab for policy development by working with three levels of government to find and manage big change. Innovation is not limited to just technology, but to finance structures, and thinking outside the box to deal with affordability and sustainability. Sidewalk Labs seeks to use technology as an enabler to help inform design. The lasting legacy they would want to have if they are successful in developing a world-class waterfront neighbourhood is to inspire the government to respond to other parts of the city and allow the city to respond more rapidly to change.

The third leg of the tour was head at MaRS Discovery District, one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs. The group was led around the facility by Jon Dogterom, Managing Director at MaRS Cleantech Venture Services. The building was buzzing with energy as workers shuffled along vast interior atriums, carefully avoiding lunch-time yoga classes held in the same corridor. Toronto has 18,000 tech companies with over 400,000+ tech employees, $330 billion annual economic impact, and one of the highest concentrations of AI experts in the world. MaRS provide advisory support, connection to capital, talent, as well as data insights for emerging ventures.

Richard Lundell, Senior Director of MaRS Partnership, asserted that innovation is not a journey, but an outcome with an endpoint and it’s happening at an exponential rate. The key to success in this realm is to be able to deliver an outcome as quickly as possible while understanding customer needs. Companies see the market differently than customers. For example, in the camera industry,  manufacturers endeavored to create better camera lenses, when the public simply wanted to capture moments. In the homebuilding industry, are developers seeing real-estate as houses, condos, and units while customers simply see it as quality of life?

The final leg of the tour was hosted by Carras at R-Labs, a venture opportunity firm that builds and invest in proptech innovation and solutions. To support the development of proptech start-ups, R-Labs focuses on housing where ventures are used help solve problems and technology is deployed as a way to deliver solutions. The office itself embodies R-Labs’ approach where each meeting room is named after the company’s value system: Integrity, Innovation, Collaboration, Authenticity, and Maitai (after two individuals that helped procure the space). “There are only two outcomes here: winning or learning,” said Carras. R-Labs’ venture process is defined in six steps: Ideation, Assessment, Genesis, Pilot, Growth, and Investment Return. Attendees had the opportunity to hear presentations from four of the start-ups supported by R-Labs: OneClose, R-Hauz, Assess+RE, and Arc Reality.

The tour ended with a departure bus ride back to Evergreen Brickworks. The core messages communicated throughout the tour were that technology should not be used simply for technology’s sake; it’s meant to be harnessed to create human-centric decisions informed by accurate data. Disruption is driven by business models that help satisfy the needs of the end user and proptech is simply a tool to help us create a better city of tomorrow.

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