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Construction tech startups are poised to shake up a $1.3-trillion-dollar industry

In the wake of COVID-19 this spring, construction sites across the nation emptied out alongside neighboring restaurants, retail stores, offices and other commercial establishments. Debates ensued over whether the construction industry’s seven million employees should be considered “essential,” while regulations continued to shift on the operation of job sites. Meanwhile, project demand steadily shrank.

Amidst the chaos, construction firms faced an existential question: How will they survive? This question is as relevant today as it was in April. As one of the least-digitized sectors of our economy, construction is ripe for technology disruption.

Construction is a massive, $1.3 trillion industry in the United States — a complex ecosystem of lenders, owners, developers, architects, general contractors, subcontractors and more. While each construction project has a combination of these key roles, the construction process itself is highly variable depending on the asset type. Roughly 41% of domestic construction value is in residential property, 25% in commercial property and 34% in industrial projects. Because each asset type, and even subassets within these classes, tends to involve a different set of stakeholders and processes, most construction firms specialize in one or a few asset groups.

Regardless of asset type, there are four key challenges across construction projects:

High fragmentation: Beyond the developer, architect, engineer and general contractor, projects could involve hundreds of subcontractors with specialized expertise. As the scope of the project increases, coordination among parties becomes increasingly difficult and decision-making slows.

Poor communication: With so many different parties both in the field and in the office, it is often difficult to relay information from one party to the next. Miscommunication and poor project data accounts for 48% of all rework on U.S. construction job sites, costing the industry over $31 billion annually according to FMI research.

Lack of data transparency: Manual data collection and data entry are still common on construction sites. On top of being laborious and error-prone, the lack of real-time data is extremely limited, therefore decision-making is often based on outdated information.

Skilled labor shortage: The construction workforce is aging faster than the younger population that joins it, resulting in a shortage of labor particularly for skilled trades that may require years of training and certifications. The shortage drives up labor costs across the industry, particularly in the residential sector, which traditionally sees higher attrition due to its more variable project demand.

A construction tech boom

Too many of the key processes involved in managing multimillion-dollar construction projects are carried out on Excel or even with pen and paper. The lack of tech sophistication on construction sites materially contributes to job delays, missed budgets and increased job site safety risk. Technology startups are emerging to help solve these problems.

Here are the main categories in which we’re seeing construction tech startups emerge.

1. Project conception

  • How it works today: During a project’s conception, asset owners and/or developers develop site proposals and may work with lenders to manage the project financing.
  • Key challenges: Processes for managing construction loans are cumbersome and time intensive today given the complexity of the loan draw process.
  • How technology can address challenges: Design software such as Spacemaker AI can help developers create site proposals, while construction loan financing software such as Built Technologies and Rabbet are helping lenders and developers manage the draw process in a more efficient manner.

2. Design and engineering

  • How it works today: Developers work with design, architect and engineering teams to turn ideas into blueprints.
  • Key challenges: Because the design and engineering teams are often siloed from the contractors, it’s hard for designers and engineers to know the real-time impact of their decisions on the ultimate cost or timing of the project. Lack of coordination with construction teams can lead to time-consuming changes.
  • How technology can address challenges: Of all the elements of the construction process, the design and engineering process itself is the most technologically sophisticated today, with relatively high adoption of software like Autodesk to help with design documentation, specification development, quality assurance and more. Autodesk is moving downstream to offer a suite of solutions that includes construction management, providing more connectivity between the teams.

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Former WeWork China exec launches a ‘startup studio’ for real estate

The real estate industry has been slow to adopt technology compared to many other sectors. So when Dominic Penaloza left his job at WeWork China as the head of innovation and technology this spring, he decided to focus on proptech in Asia.

Instead of building a startup himself or investing in one, Penaloza combines both objectives by launching a “startup studio” called REinvent (“RE” short for “real estate”). The industry jargon refers to an organization that builds startups with an in-house team, hence it’s also referred to as a “startup factory” or “venture builder.” A famous example is Rocket Internet, which is credited for building Lazada in Southeast Asia and Jumia in Africa.

Penaloza, a serial entrepreneur who exited his co-working startup Naked Hub to WeWork China in 2018, now runs a team of 45 across Shanghai, Taipei and Singapore, most of whom he has worked with at WeWork and Naked Hub. The studio is organized into what the chief executive calls product “squads” consisting of the likes of product managers, designers, engineers, and artificial intelligence experts, and has the capacity to work on four projects at one time.

The founder also brought onboard heavyweight investors to help the startup studio tackle a sector with deeply entrenched players. Among REinvent’s backers are JustCo, a major co-working company in the Asia Pacific backed by some of Asia’s biggest property owners, such as the Singaporen sovereign wealth fund GIC; multi-national property developer Frasers Property; and one of Japan’s leading real estate firms Daito Trust.

REinvent has full ownership in the ventures it launches, while the three investors own equity in it. The company declined to disclose how much it has raised from its investors so far.

The financiers also importantly contribute strategic resources, Penaloza told TechCrunch in an interview. Started in May, REinvent has already launched two ventures, including one called Switch that lets individuals and enterprises book workspace and pay per minute, similar to how bike-sharing works. The difference is that Switch is a marketplace with third-party landlords like JustCo and Frasers, while bike-share companies often supply and operate the bikes themselves.

Screenshot of the Switch app

The marketplace today has a growing network of 2,500 desks at over 20 locations across Singapore, including small office booths that have sprung up across malls. It’s proposing on-demand workspace at a time when the whole world is forced by the coronavirus pandemic to rethink where to work physically.

“Real estate companies are all figuring out how to react to COVID, how to help organizations survive COVID and to prepare for the next pandemic so the impact on business would not be as big as this time,” said Penaloza.

Meanwhile, flexible work pods are an attractive proposition for mall owners, especially those in China looking for new tenants as e-commerce encroaches into offline retail.

“E-commerce was eating up the traditional retail model even before COVID. Developers in China are trying to repurpose some of their malls… There are now a lot of F&B, experiential stores, cafes, and even co-working space inside malls,” observed Penaloza.

Penaloza tested an early version of his on-demand workspace vision back at WeWork China where he made the firm’s public space available to customers without a membership, capturing professionals who use Starbucks for meetings and remote working but providing a quieter environment and better WiFi.

The other product REinvent has introduced is SixSense, software for spatial analytics and social distance detection.

“Real estate is something not many people think about, but it’s one of the biggest industries on earth,” noted Penaloza. “Proptech in Asia and China is very early-stage but it is picking up.”

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