On January 29th, 2019, in the freezing, messy weather, ULI Toronto brought together its members for the ”PropTech: Speaker Series Presented” at Dream Unlimited’s headquarters.
As new technologies emerge, PropTech has become one of the latest buzzwords in the real estate industry, especially as commercial landlords like Dream and Quadreal are looking for new, efficient ways to connect with their tenants.
A panel of forerunners in the Canadian PropTech arena — Courtney Cooper, Kofi Gyekye and Cheryl Gray — shared valuable insights on the current state and evolving role of technology in transforming the industry. The panel was moderated by Brad Keast, Vice President, Innovation & Development at Dream, one of Canada’s leading real estate companies with approximately $14 billion of assets under management globally.
Many residential and commercial real estate professionals scratch their heads when probed on the exact nature of PropTech. With the panel agreeing that it is still a vague, all-encompassing concept, one possible definition is an umbrella reference for companies offering technologically innovative solutions or new business models for the real estate industry. Some of the more familiar are Zillow with real estate advertising and listings database, Redfin as a technology-powered brokerage, and WeWork pioneering and now advancing the co-working space. The PropTech universe, however, is home to more, whether it be a drone-based property inspector, a chatbot for consumers navigating the home transaction journey, visual analytics provider for construction sites, or a tenant experience and communications platform like Lane.
As the Director of Corporate Development, Courtney Cooper oversees operations at Alate Partners, a $40-million PropTech fund by Relay Ventures, Dream Unlimited and Dream Office REIT. Alate supports entrepreneurs with access to real estate expertise, introductions to potential customers, and funding to help them scale their businesses. To date, Alate has invested in Arrive, a parking and last-mile mobility solutions provider, and Lane, a central platform for property managers to engage their tenants about the services and amenities offered in their buildings, as well as sharing news, events and updates. Fellow panelist Kofi Gyekye co-founded Lane and serves as the company’s Chief Product Officer.
Regarding effective adoption of PropTech, the panel shared the importance of maintaining open-mindedness, while being selectively receptive to available offerings in the market. Cheryl Gray, Executive Vice President of Enterprise Innovation, is used to startup pitches promising to add “value” to industry players like Quadreal, a real estate investment, operating and development company with a $27.4 billion global portfolio.
“We’ve had experiments where we tried some things that sounded really good in theory, but once put into practice, we didn’t see the value and building staff were frustrated. That’s where we step back, or we’re just not ready,” said Gray. This is partly why her team consists of seasoned experts with diverse backgrounds in IT, construction and property management to better understand and identify areas for greater efficiency in preparation for technology adoption. At the same time, PropTech operators like Gyekye focus on making this implementation process smooth, while “seeking the right balance of the largest customer impact with the least cost associated.”
Alate recently named its advisory board which features many Canadian real estate industry leaders. With the board’s assistance, Cooper and her team dedicate a lot of time connecting with real estate owners, builders, and operators to better understand their respective needs and provide insight on the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. They further leverage the knowledge of Relay Ventures beyond PropTech, such as in the development of autonomous vehicles and 5G, and pay close attention to technologies that other industries are adopting faster, while considering their implications on the real estate industry.
Closing the discussion, Keast asked the panel about the evolving trends in PropTech going forward and when the term “PropTech” would eventually be phased out. Gyekye noted the ongoing shift in focus from building operators to tenants, with Gray’s highlight of customer service being a driving force for not just office buildings, but all asset types. When looking at larger trends, Cooper sees huge opportunities in enhancing homes and offices, allowing them to become more energy efficient, connected, and healthy with more data-driven and affordable construction and design approaches.. Although the panel agreed it was difficult to put a hard timeline on when “PropTech” would get phased out, they seemed to agree that we will continue to see the Canadian real estate industry explore new business models and partnerships that allow them to provide more flexibility and convenience to their tenants and residents.