Category: United States

InterviewsUnited States

Citiesense: New York City Neighbourhood Data Platform

The Disrupt Property database features a number of startups using technology to understand neighbourhood data, land parcels and unearth development opportunities. Citiesense is the most recent one we have discovered, currently in beta stage while it fine tunes its New York city focused platform. We got in touch with Co-Founder Starling Childs to understand their approach to unlocking city data.

What is the story behind citiesense?

The neighbourhood is a fundamental unit in the city planning and development process. However, analysing neighbourhoods and understanding the drivers behind economic performance of specific areas in cities remains a big challenge, for which there is no real solution – even in cities with a lot of available data, like New York City. Considering how much of the world’s population is moving to cities, forcing urban areas to change, in some cases, dramatically, neighbourhood communities simply can’t afford not to be more proactive and responsive to opportunities for local development going forward.

Decisions about where, what and when to build new buildings, improve infrastructure, or open new businesses are big decisions that impact cities at the neighbourhood scale. To help with these decisions, Citiesense is establishing a ‘Neighbourhood Knowledge Platform™’,  enabling cities to organise fresh information for the real estate industry, from the neighbourhood up, and drive development toward the best outcomes. The platform is currently being created and tested in partnership with several neighbourhood organisations in New York City that manage Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).

Who is the team behind it?

The team behind Citiesense has backgrounds in city planning, real estate development, and smart cities technology. Before starting Citiesense, I worked as a land use consultant and urban designer, helping neighbourhood communities around the world create plans for development. Carl has a background in real estate development and architecture. Volkan is a full-stack software engineer and was a former Code for America brigade captain. He joined Citiesense after getting to know me through working together at hackathons and early prototypes of their Neighborhood Knowledge Platform.

What is the business model?

Citiesense is a B2B SaaS platform. We have freemium features available to anyone interested in analysing specific areas or neighbourhoods in New York City and tracking the development activity in these areas in real time. We are also currently in the process of private beta testing our Neighbourhood Knowledge Platform™ with a subset of New York City’s local development organisations managing Business Improvement Districts.

What technology is the platform built on?

Our stack is built on Ruby on Rails on the backend and React on the frontend. We use Postgres as our database and the PostGIS extension for geospatial queries.

Who are you clients?

Our clients are neighbourhood organisations that manage Business Improvement Districts in New York City. Citiesense also provides services to municipal clients, including the City of Bridgeport, CT. These early adopters represent some of the most innovative neighbourhoods in the world.

How is this different to something like OppSites or Land Insight?

As a knowledge management platform for neighbourhoods, Citiesense offers services for organising and maintaining local information about cities. Citiesense is not a property search website. While some of the features of the platform can be used to search for specific properties in a city, the service is designed for neighbourhood-scale data analysis and information sharing, and this requires us to do things a differently than sites like Oppsites and in particular. Our customers rely on Citiesense more for data management and analysis than for promoting or searching for specific properties.

What are your plans for expansion?

We’re focused on our private beta testing in New York City for 2017, however, we have early conversations started with several cities and neighbourhoods outside NYC interested in deploying the platform for their local communities. We will begin scaling geographically in 2018 and publicly launch the platform for the rest of country then.

Tell us about the Urban-X process / experience?

URBAN-X is an accelerator program in New York City that focuses on startups solving complex urban challenges and changing people’s lives in cities. We participated in the second cohort for the program. This culminated in a demo day a few weeks ago on May 4th. It was a great experience. It helped us strengthen our existing value proposition and focus on a long-term strategy for our platform’s growth and development. One of the most rewarding aspects of the program was, without a doubt, the people we connected with through it – including the other 7 amazing urban tech companies in our cohort.

The focus is on BIDs – how does this mean the information is different if the focus were on development opportunities?

Focusing on BIDs simply means providing services that serve the needs of these unique groups, specifically the local community organisations that manage BIDs. The information BIDs maintain about their areas in cities is similar to the information that a developer or broker might manage, but it goes deeper. BIDs make it there job to know all there is to know about a neighbourhood, which is something our platform helps them with by connecting their data with data from many fragmented government sources. Connecting BIDs to government data sources with a system that enables them to add their own insight, enables them to curate a higher resolution of local insights. They keep track of things like the status and details of real estate, whether vacant retail spaces or new businesses are opening up in the area, or the performance of streetscapes based on traffic counting sensors and surveying assets like bicycle racks, street lights and tree pits as well as tracking outstanding 311 complaints.

What stage are we at in terms of smart cities (in your opinion) and what are the biggest opportunities?

Smart cities are just beginning to become recognisable. The larger cities around the world have now adopted some degree of IoT infrastructure to track the performance of public services and utilities. These systems are all 1.0 for this, generally replacing legacy technologies that for many US cities are roughly a century old. Opportunities to optimise the delivery of infrastructure and utilities have been a sensible beachhead for smart cities technology. Going forward, we’re going to see a more integrated “user experience” approach to making a city ‘smart’, not only from utility sensors but from the interaction of people living and working in cities with their neighbourhoods. As far as we’re concerned, the real opportunities are going to be realised at the neighborhood-scale, where the impact of urban technology on civic society can be measured and shared more effectively, iterated on and adopted elsewhere.

We co-hosted the first Smart Districts Summit earlier this year to start a discourse about how this trend is emerging in New York City. This was the first of a series of events Citiesense is organizing in partnership with other urban tech companies at the Grand Central Tech Hub and the NYC Small Business Services agency to explore the role technology is having on walkable mixed-use neighborhoods in cities.  Stay tuned for our second event to talk more about Smart Districts later this year.

Blockchain and real estate
InterviewsUnited States

Ubitquity Interview: A 12 month update on blockchain and real estate

In May 2016, we interviewed Ubitquity founder Nathan Wosnack just as he was establishing one of the world’s first platforms for blockchain and real estate. Since then there has been a lot of industry hype on this topic so we sought out a 12 month update to get a sense of exactly how things are progressing in this space.

Tell us about your progress over the last 12 months?

Since we last spoke in May, Ubitquity has made significant progress both in the development of our SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) platform, but also in the business relationships we have formed.

The structural problem of title transfers continues to cause innumerable financial and emotional hardships for citizens, municipalities, and financial institutions. We strongly feel that blockchain technology is not only desirable, but vital for improving economic development as it will significantly reduce costs while creating new technically skilled jobs in the near future. More specifically, we have made progress in the following areas:

Platform development – In September 2016 (one year after registering our LLC) we launched our platform as a private alpha (v1.0). In February of this year we launched v1.1 with a few new features including an improved FAQ/Getting started menu and a public records/tab links so that public records from municipalities entered are automatically available. We also added provider-level DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) protection. We expect more announcements as we continue with our development with pilot users.

Traction – We have been working with various municipalities (both in the US and worldwide) to meet their ever increasing need for efficient record keeping, while simultaneously yielding significant cost savings and streamlining a costly and burdensome administrative process. This has included both public and stealth pilots. As of a few days ago, we’ve been asked to be part of a case study with Blockchain@UBC (University of British Columbia) using our Brazil pilot. Blockchain@UBC, which Ubitquity is an industry partner, was founded by Dr. Victoria L. Lemieux who was formerly with The World Bank and published a paper  “Trusting records: is Blockchain technology the answer?”.

Conferences – We’ve spoken at D10e in San Francisco, at MIT Center for Real Estate (Christian Saucier and Avi Spielman were on a panel), and our partner Marina Reznik did our first international speech in Abu Dhabi, UAE in December 2016. We were also privileged enough to be chosen as finalists in the 1776 & Smart Dubai Office Blockchain Challenge happening this May 29th-30th.

Overall how much has the blockchain landscape changed in the last 12 months?

We’re seeing technology companies in this space emerging that are not focused on developing around one particular blockchain anymore. Interestingly we’re see organizations looking at the benefits of platforms using interoperable UTXO-based blockchains like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Hyperledger, and MultiChain.

What else? The hype surrounding the ‘blockchain’ buzzword seems to have somewhat waned and companies continue to build both interesting and promising proof of concepts as well as early pilots and are receiving major funding by launching ICOs (Initial Coin Offering) as an alternative to traditional angel/VC equity fund raising for their ideas which has spawned a rush of innovative crowdfunding ideas that I believe may in fact be tenable. At the same time, I’m seeing individuals and companies building questionable so-called blockchain technology ‘solutions’ that may prove that distributed ledgers were not even a necessary component or even technically feasible or were/are simply an ICO scam.

From the real estate tech (‘RETech’) front, I’ve noticed more municipalities and companies in the title insurance and e-recording space being open to meeting blockchain real estate/mortgage companies for panel ‘blockchain 101’ discussions to help educate industry incumbents on the potential benefits of it.

These meetings with industry associations, some of which Ubitquity has participated in, have helped to counter a lot of the media perpetuated FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about how blockchain technology will eliminate things like title insurance and many jobs in real estate. We believe that education and the waning hype, along with innovative entrepreneurial creativity will continuously combine to create new capabilities, leading to explosive growth over the long term.

Have any competitors of note emerged recently?

There have which I believe is a good sign we’re on the right track. Some of these competitors have announced pilots with municipalities like we have. Interestingly though, none of them that I’ve observed seem to be building a SaaS platform that focuses on B2B (Business-to-Business) with a focus on e-recording and title companies. Some competitors have focused on local municipalities and announced early-pilots, and interestingly at least two of the organizations have reached out to cooperate with Ubitquity. One of them we recently partnered with is called Bitland.

The other we’re in active talks with is ChromaWay. We are in contact to explore a partnership and other collaboration opportunities in an effort to help grow our organisations along with the blockchain and real estate ecosystem.  Perhaps also to become one of our infrastructure providers. We’re exploring this some more and being that Ubitquity is both blockchain and vendor agnostic, we’ve been happily having these conversations. It’s incredibly early in this niche space and I believe that aligning ourselves with the right partners early is the best way to innovate and gain the most traction. As they say these days: ‘collaboration is the new competition’.

Tell us about the pilot deal you are doing in Brazil?

We’ve partnered with the Cartório de Registro de Imóveis (Real Estate Registry Office) in Brazil to create the first ever pilot programme for the region’s official land records. Our belief is that it will bring greater accuracy and immutability to the data being handled by the land records office. We’re working to bring not just accuracy, and transparency, but also to ensure that we’re compliant and adhering to the best recording keeping practices within this municipality. The first pilot proper registered was a doctor’s home in the southern city of Pelotas (entered onto the Ubitquity Platform on 30 March). We’ve added more addresses since then including the rural municipality of Morro Redondo. In time we’ll have a platform that we hope completely replaces the centralized, siloed legacy systems that exist. Our pilot in Brazil is exciting as it is the first of its kind in the Americas.

How did the deal come about?

A gentleman by the name of Rafael Mezzari at the registry contacted us several months ago. Rafael did much of his own research and saw major potential that blockchain technology had for transparent record keeping and accuracy. Soon after our discussions, Rafael saw how much his bureau needed this, and since then we agreed to create an early pilot with expansion as we continue to develop out our platform to their specifications and needs.

Are there any other such deals globally?

Yes! We’re working on some stealth pilots right now. We’ve been exploring global opportunities in Canada and elsewhere, and I can tell you one of them we’re actively working on is in the United States (and we anticipate having news to share soon).

You said you are working on standardisation – what does that mean?

We’re participating in the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee 307 (ISO/TC307) on Blockchain and Distributed Ledgers in collaboration with the aforementioned Blockchain@UBC. Blockchain@UBC continues to lead the development of a terminology database, which supports international efforts to arrive at a common understanding of blockchain concepts and terms. The database will use the InterPARES Trust Terminology Database as the platform. You can learn more about this on their blog post from 4 May. With that said, ISO standards are just the beginning. We’re in discussions with the Property Records Industry Association (PRIA) among others in an effort to find ways to adhere to and form best practices and standards for blockchain and real estate. Ubitquity, our partners, and the Blockchain Real Estate Alliance that I’ve independently formed are on the forefront of such endeavours.

You are also working on a blockchain alliance – what’s the objective?

With the Blockchain Real Estate Alliance, our motto is “Working together to advance educational quality and enhance best practices within the blockchain and real estate industry.” I founded it and brought two highly capable and brilliant people to realize this vision. Jacob Robinson (a seasoned programmer who I mentioned recently joined Ubitquity) and Adrianna Mendez (B Libre Podcast and Bitcoin Beginner Box). As the months unfold, we plan to bring on industry members, hold events, and build out the alliance.

How is the capital raising going?

Good! We’re in serious talks with angel investors to help with our development and we’re expecting our new clients to help pay for our development. When we initially started, our feedback from VCs was to build out the platform more and get traction. Now that we have done this, we’ve been contacted by several firms and accredited investors who are interested in what we’re doing and are discussing ways to be involved. Once our funding is solidified, Disrupt Property will be the first to know!

InterviewsIoTUnited States

Building Management Platform: Site 1001

Cloud-based building management platforms are growing in number, attempting to replace proprietary iBMS systems to create open source, ‘smart’ buildings. Site1001 recently raised US$5m Series A funding and is notable as a rare PropTech start up that began life inside a construction company, only to successfully spin out on its own. We talked to CEO Cleve Adams:

What’s behind the name?

Site 1001 began as a ‘skunkworks’ project inside of JE Dunn Construction, a leading general contractor based in Kansas City, Missouri. The company’s address is 1001 Locust Street, so we adopted the ‘Ten O One’ moniker as the company and product name.

Can you tell us a bit about the business model?

We believe that building operations is just beginning to undergo the same sort of technological disruption that industries like retail, transportation, travel and hospitality underwent in the past decade. Cheap sensors and new technologies are going to turn just about every building component from a boiler to a light bulb into a connected ‘thing.’ But since boilers and light bulbs still need to be managed, maintained and replaced, facilities managers, ready or not, are going to be taking on a quasi-IT role as well.

We also believe that facilities managers already have enough to do and adding ‘smart’ technology and IT troubleshooting to the list isn’t going to make the job any easier. So rather than forcing FM professionals to become IT guys, our business model is built on eliminating the IT altogether and letting them focus on facilities management. As such, Site 1001 is based on a ‘software as a service’ model – cloud-based and mobile first, so there’s nothing required beyond a mobile app or a web browser to use it. Moreover, because cloud technology lets us continuously update the platform, customers always have the latest and greatest features wherever they go and without any downtime. The Site 1001 pricing model is equally simple. One flat monthly fee gets every product feature and an unlimited number of users.

Your website says ‘No systems to setup, no special hardware, no IT guys’ – does that mean all building services like AHU, lifts, lighting, security can connect to the system regardless of their manufacturer?

Yes. The system is completely cloud-based and runs via an app or web-browser. We have technology partnerships with major building systems, MEP, and equipment manufacturers, as well as a growing stable of IoT and sensor manufacturers that lets us integrate it all into a single platform accessible from anywhere you and your smartphone go.

How many buildings is Site 1001 deployed on?

We have a dozen sites currently on the platform and we’re on track to be somewhere near 50 in 2017.

Given the emergence of building management platforms how does a building owner know what makes a good product?

Building owners should be focusing on a few key areas when deciding whether a product is right for them. First, does this make my job easier or more difficult? If a product is too complicated, difficult for people to use, or forces you to change the way you do business, it’s not a good product. Second, what’s the real cost of the system? That’s not just the base software cost, but setup and implementation costs and time frame, additional functionality, user licenses etc. If the real price isn’t clear, it’s almost impossible to know if you’re getting a decent return on your investment. Finally, building owners should ask will this system help my business be more profitable.

Most simply think of a building management system as a way to reduce total cost of ownership. But a well-designed, forward-looking system will also provide information that will help you uncover new business insights and revenue opportunities whether that’s through efficiencies that can be replicated in other locations, higher tenant lease rates and lower churn, or even the ability to generate new revenue sources via the building data you collect.

How have you approached the user interface side of the platform? Is this a place you have made a lot of effort?

When we first began designing the Site 1001 platform we understood facilities managers are constantly out and about doing their work, not parked at a desk looking at a computer. As such, we designed the product to be mobile first and desktop second, which is exactly the opposite of most other systems. If you look at our mobile interface you’ll see that it’s simple, with large buttons and text that’s easy to read, which makes it far simpler to use when you’re in a maintenance closet trying to pull up and read an O&M manual.

Further, we built the system around the concept of being location-based and combining visual elements like panoramic photos with hotspots and text-based elements like workorders and manuals to minimise the need to search for information. When a Site 1001 user walks into a room, the app on his phone knows where he is and brings up the asset information for that room. If he’s there to fix a drinking fountain, then he gets the information for that specific drinking fountain, not every drinking fountain in the building.

There’s literally hundreds of elements built into Site 1001 designed to leverage the sensors and systems built into smartphones and tablets – cameras, accelerometers, WiFi locationing, bluetooth proximity, and so on – to make it super simple to get the information a facilities manager needs when and where he needs it. That’s not something that FM systems originally designed for a computer and later ported to mobile can do.

Does the product allow for predictive building maintenance?

Site 1001 has features built in for predictive, preventative and corrective maintenance. That includes things like reminders for standard warranties and preventative maintenance, as well as alerting and real time notifications for unusual patterns or anomalous activity from building systems. So if, for example, you’ve got a chiller that’s operating normally but having unusual power cycling, you’ll get an alert regarding the cycling, a severity level and information on likely causes and proper corrective maintenance procedures. Some of the more interesting things we’re working on now leverage building sensors and IoT devices to perform some really cool smart building functions like autonomous activity such as a light bulb or air filter issuing its own replacement work order before it stops functioning.

When did you know you were ready to spin the business out of JE Dunn?

We began development back in 2011, but it wasn’t until our fourth or fifth customer a couple of years later that we realised Site 1001 was going to be much more than a system for managing the hand off from construction to building owner. As a general contractor, JE Dunn is involved with a building for the first couple of years of its life, but Site 1001 is going to be involved for the next 5, 10, or 20 years. Moreover, we were getting involved with other building and business systems like WiFi networks, ERP and real time asset locationing that was outside the JE Dunn wheelhouse. At that point we said “we need to spin out on our own.”

What was the capital raising process like? How was it dealing with funds compared to JE Dunn’s investment?

I’ve raised capital from Silicon Valley to Israel for half a dozen companies over the past 20 years and Site 1001’s was by far the best both in terms of investor interest and enthusiasm. JE Dunn actually led our Series A investment and we were able to bring in three other investment groups, all of whom are from the Kansas City area. As you may know, Kansas City, Missouri was the first city Google chose for its Google Fiber high speed internet project, and the city has a developed a vibrant investment and development community focused on technologies and innovations in smart cities, transportation, telecommunications and healthcare, as well as many others. There’s a lot of exciting startups coming out of KCMO.

What are your plans for growth?

Currently we’re focused on expanding our installed base here in North America. We just opened an office in Southern California and we are working on projects from Atlanta, Georgia to Portland, Oregon. We also just hired a new head of sales who came to us from IBM. Before landing with Site 1001, he headed Big Blue’s smarter cities and Watson IoT divisions for all of Europe, so once we’ve established our North American presence, we may be pursuing new opportunities over there.

CommercialInterviewsIoTUnited States

Comfy App: Leading the Way in Workplace Comfort and Productivity

Comfy allows office workers to control their immediate room temperature via their phone, and is leading the workplace technology wave, as employers increasingly focus on the connection between environmental quality and worker productivity. In June, Comfy raised US$12m in Series B funding from leading investors including CBRE, a global real estate brokerage. President Lindsay Baker gave us a snapshot of the market leader in office thermal comfort:

How did Comfy come about and how did you get involved?

Comfy started a handful of years ago when Andrew and Steve, our CEO and CTO, were PhD students in Computer Science at UC Berkeley. They were involved in a research project around software and buildings, and created the prototype of Comfy after tinkering with systems at a building on campus. It worked pretty well, so they started navigating the idea of starting a business. That’s when I met them, we got the company off the ground around 3 years ago, and we’ve been growing ever since!

Emergence, Microsoft and CBRE are an amazing set of investors / partners – what was the capital raise process like?

We are very fortunate with our newest investors. They all share the vision for the impact we can have on people’s lives, and share in the excitement that we have at being in the right place at the right time for the market. Emergence is well known for investing in successful SaaS companies like Salesforce, Box and Yammer, and have been really helpful so far as we learn some key lessons for our upcoming growth stages. Microsoft is obviously a legend when it comes to positively impacting productivity for us in our work lives, and so they’ve been great as new partners. And finally the investment from CBRE has lent a great credibility to us, given their status in global real estate. They look at a lot of real estate technologies, so we are very happy to earn their attention. The capital raise process is a lot like building a new account or partner – it’s all about finding shared value, so it’s exciting to find it with such great organisations.

I’ve read about the investment being for further product development / expansion, could you elaborate?

We as a company are in a great place in the market. We’ve shown our unique ability to get high engagement from occupants with a CRE app that also does some pretty tricky work with systems integration, controls etc. So now we are looking to some great opportunities to use our platform and skills to eliminate other pain points that occupants have with their physical environments at work. There’s a lot to be done, but the good news is that the real estate industry is looking for ways to improve worker productivity and we have a unique ability to help do that. Stay tuned for the details 😉

Is the investment from CBRE any different given they are one of the world’s largest building managers?

As has been reported, we are currently piloting Comfy with CBRE in a set of locations. We’ve all seen press releases about startups and big companies in our space promising big future partnerships, but we’d rather make headlines once we’ve made it happen, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Comfy looks like a tenant focused product. Is there a way to work with developers / landlords?

Comfy is a product focused on anyone who cares about how it feels to go to work every day. Typically that’s been employers who have control over their buildings, because they see the impact of employees who aren’t as productive as they can be. But all of us in real estate bear some of this responsibility, it’s just a question of monetizing that. So yes, we do now have some awesome clients who are landlords who see Comfy as a differentiator – a way to attract and retain tenants. But I’ve been in the real estate industry long enough to know that this type of thing wouldn’t have initially gotten traction with landlords because they needed to see the pull from tenants. So we went first to owner/occupiers, and now that we’ve proven our value, we are excited to be getting the attention of landlords.

Are you guys working on the Delos Well Rating in any way or seeing it influence what you do?

I’ve known the folks at Delos since they got started, and some of the work that I was doing before Comfy (along with many others) was influential to them in starting the system. The connection between health and buildings has been a long-standing pursuit, and Delos is doing great work driving this message into the marketplace and supporting some awesome research to prove this connection. I’ve not had time to work directly on the standard recently, but we are definitely supporters in their work.

In terms of integration with other platforms (Redwood Systems, Intel, Lutron, and View) – are there any more planned?

There are indeed other integrations planned, but none announced yet!

Can you tell me more about the AI and how it works?

To clarify, Comfy delivers streams of warm or cool air to building occupants at the press of a button in the app. Over time, those requests are run through machine learning algorithms to help predict and optimize the temperature for a particular zone (or area where people sit). Basically we use an equation that runs over and over again, for every HVAC zone that we support, and the output of that equation determines the maximum and minimum temperatures in that moment for that zone. So it’s dynamic over time, in other words.

User data accumulates over time, and that equation keeps running, and thus the computer can gradually migrate to settings that it ‘learns’ over time. That equation is also called an algorithm. Our algorithm takes into account a few numbers: the time of the week, the indoor temperature, and whether someone wants it to be warmer or cooler. Then it crunches all of the data points for those numbers, and cranks out its guess for what the perfect temperature is, for that room, at that time. The great part is also that if the algorithm doesn’t nail it, people have an easy way to get an immediate change as well.

As I am sitting in Singapore, what are the plans for international expansion?

We are excited to be getting interest in Comfy from across the globe. We are happy to support clients in 4 different countries today and we are considering international markets to potentially establish more of a presence proactively, but either way, the great part of what we do is that it’s very feasible to deploy and support remotely, so we’ll keep doing that for now!

What’s the vision of Comfy in 10 years?

Today, there is a big disconnect between what our bodies and minds need to be productive and what our office buildings provide. We believe that people can reconnect with buildings so that our workplaces become truly thoughtful and responsive to us. There are many facets of that re-connection, lots of work to do.

My favourite image is that someone walks into their office, maybe a location they don’t usually visit, and the building knows this person’s preferences, maybe it’s a quiet, naturally lit, cool spot, and they get a little notification that tells them that a perfect spot is available for them to sit that day, and asks if they would like to book it for the day. Then it helps them navigate there, gets their documents pulled up on the workstation, and they can settle in comfortably and seamlessly. When they need a little less light, they can easily dim the windows without hassle. When they need a nearby room for a meeting, it’s easy to book, find and set up. All of these interactions should be as easy and as masterful as making a sandwich in your kitchen, but today they are filled with frustration. Maybe not the craziest vision, but it would help a lot of people have better lives at work.

Finally, Is your office air conditioning utopia?

Ha, well, our current office is a lovely space in beautiful downtown Oakland. We do have Comfy in our space. If it’s a utopia, I’d say that’s more because we have an awesome team of people who I’m proud to work with. And of course we also keep ice cream and sweaters on hand, just in case 😉

See Comfy in action on youtube.

Proptech Oppsites
CommercialInterviewsInvestmentUnited States

Oppsites: Proptech Matchmaking service for Real Estate Developers and Cities

Cities need developers, developers need cities. Connecting the dots between government planning objectives and investment has previously been conducted via a mixed bag of personal relationships, brokers, official tours and plain old business development – until now. Oakland based Oppsites saw an opportunity to create a single platform allowing cities to promote all of their development opportunities, centralising and simplifying this process for all parties (video explanation here). COO and Co-Founder Tomas Janusas explains the background and how it works:

So what is the background behind OppSites?

After 15 years as an urban design consultant helping cities achieve their economic development goals, Ian Ross (our CEO) realised that cities needed a better way to communicate those goals with investors, developers, and brokers.

Many communities include a large number of public and privately owned properties that are underutilised, and whose redevelopment would bring new revenues to the community. Yet many cities lack the resources and professional network to market those opportunity sites to a wide audience of prospective investors. OppSites was built to connect cities and the real estate investment community to maximise successful economic development through enhanced communication between the government and real estate sectors.

Tell us about the team?

Ian Ross (CEO and Co-Founder): Since 1999, Ian has provided urban design and economic development services to cities in support of long term economic health. He received a BA in economics from the University of Rochester and an MLA from Cornell University. His experience informs his focus on economic development at the intersection of city planning and real estate investment.

Tomas Janusas (COO and Co-Founder): Tomas has a diverse background in real estate, planning, technology, and project management. OppSites grew out of Tomas’ passion for building technology solutions that catalyse urban development. Tomas is in charge of OppSites’ daily operations and product development. His lifelong appreciation for urban environments led him to the University of California School of Environmental Design (CED), where he graduated summa cum laude with a BA in Urban Studies.

What drives local government to list opportunities? Why can’t they find partners the traditional way?

When cities do planning work and create a vision for their future, they raise the economic potential in a property by increasing the development capacity. But that potential often goes unrealised because investors and developers simply do not know about it. By posting these properties on OppSites, local governments can reach a much wider audience than traditional methods such as word of mouth, city-hosted broker tours or industry conferences.

Does this replace the role of traditional brokers (CBRE, JLL etc)?

OppSites does not replace the role of traditional brokers, but rather exposes more opportunity for the industry to act on. We believe that real estate potential often goes unrealised simply because property is not listed for sale. OppSites uncovers entirely new set of real estate listings – properties that are not on the market but have underutilised potential and local government support for new development.

Does the municipality etc simply list the opportunity? Does oppsites provide any additional analysis or just act as a marketplace?

Currently OppSites provides only basic layers of information (parcel and owner’s information) and no analysis. Local government leaders can highlight opportunity sites or districts on the map and share local knowledge about an investment.

For example, the city of Oakland is using OppSites by posting some of its recently completed specific and area plans. The plans detail how land can be used in certain areas. It allows Oakland ‘to educate, market, and demonstrate the city’s efforts in terms of showing off our opportunity sites and creating interest for those sites,’ says Aliza Gallo, the city’s economic development manager.

How do the partnerships work: ICSC, ULI etc?

Public and private sector members can use OppSites technology to share or find the information about investment opportunities among their members.

  • Cities, Counties, and Economic Development Organisations can showcase publicly and privately owned properties that they want to see redeveloped, even if those sites are not listed for sale. Those sites are showcased on a web-based platform, and can be shared with local and national real estate professionals.
  • Real estate Developers, Brokers, and Investors can find underexposed development opportunities that support local economic development goals, then connect with city leaders to save time, streamline due diligence, and reduce risk.

‘We see this as a tool that will be helpful to our members both in the public sector and the private sector in promoting and finding sites,’ says Cynthia Stewart, the Washington D.C. based staff vice president of community development for ICSC, a global trade association for the retail industry. Its members include shopping center owners and developers, land use attorneys, architects, mayors, and chambers of commerce. ‘It’s a real way for small-town cities and urban cities with underserved urban markets to get those sites in front of developers. They aren’t always the obvious sites,” Stewart says.

What is your coverage like in the US? What has the expansion process been like?

OppSites has grown incredibly fast since it’s launch in September 2014. Currently, we have over 400 cities and over 3,000 real estate professionals using OppSites on any given month.

What have you learned or surprised you since launching this business?

The most surprising factor has been, and still is, the inefficiencies that exist in real estate industry and the potential it creates for commercial real estate innovators.

Could this platform expand internationally?

It could, but we have not explored the opportunity thoroughly. Currently we are working with a few Canadian cities. However, I believe OppSites has an incredible potential in the area of Foreign Direct Investment.

You had a seed round in 2014 – are you now revenue generating with no need or plans to raise further capital?

We are currently raising more capital to accelerate the growth.  

Have you seen Landinsight in the UK? How similar is it to your platform?

OppSites is a matchmaking service for cities and real estate developers rather than the property analytics tool as Landinsight seems to be.

Blockchain in real estate
InterviewsUnited States

Ubitquity: Pioneering the blockchain in Real Estate

What does the blockchain mean and how does it relate to real estate? Blockchain is the decentralisation of data via a peer-to-peer network so that information is stored locally and authenticated between computers without the need for a central server. Information is highly encrypted and easy to search. For real estate, this has the potential to significantly reduce paperwork, fraud and documentation errors. This could lead to significant disruption and dislodgement of third party players such as escrow and title registries that exist to authenticate real estate records.

Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin which, while far from mainstream, has proved many doubters wrong and today is worth more than USD$450 / unit. As a virtual currency without any government or central bank legitimacy, bitcoin requires squeaky clean record keeping and audit trails in order to remain above reproach. This does not remove the risk of human error, but can confirm a record’s authenticity by verifying the time and date, contents and party making the submission (more on accuracy below).

Founded by a couple of early bitcoin miners (Bitcoin Mining? See video here), Ubitquity is one of the very few pioneers attempting to take this technology to the real estate industry. The team, based in Delaware, is currently looking to raise USD$650,00 with a pre-seed valuation of $3.3 million. We spoke to CEO Nathan Wosnack and CTO Christian Saucier:

What stage are you up to right now?

In November 2015 our fledging new start up took a laser focused approach and a full pivot as a company by building a singular SMB (Small-Medium Business) and Enterprise SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) blockchain real estate platform. From November 2015 onwards to the present time we’ve been involved in defining industry pain points and developing the code base for the Ubitquity platform. In early March of this year we celebrated the initial completion of our prototype, and have now started working with an organization adding large amounts of real estate land metadata as part of our “Test Group 1” prior to our initial alpha release of our platform for our customers. We anticipate the alpha to be available for our business customers this summer.

Who are your users? Individuals? Banks? Brokers?

We envision a layered approach to the adoption of this technology.  The early adopters are going to be parties with the most to gain from efficiency and reduced transaction costs.  Mortgage originators and title companies are natural first customer to focus on.  We also have enterprise level financial institutions interested in taking advantage of a custom, (albeit permissioned version) of our SaaS platform.

What are the key benefits to users?

The ensuing environment of real estate financing and title transfers has resulted in massive amounts of document errors and fraud, stemming from the unprecedented complexity of today’s housing industry and the historic defaults occurring during the 2008 housing crisis.

To streamline and address this costly problem going forward we’ve created a platform for recording every pertinent step of a real estate transaction, including permanent storage of key documents, through a simple / user-friendly and secure portal, which permanently records the transaction on the blockchain. Since problematic title transfer of ownership still causes innumerable financial and emotional hardships to citizens, financial institutions and municipalities, blockchain technology is not only desirable but vital for improving economic development.

Key features include: easy of use, peer-to-peer storage, secured by the blockchain (we use the Bitcoin blockchain via Colu but we’re also experimenting with permissioned blockchains for custom SaaS clients so we remain blockchain agnostic), real-world integration, increased transparency, reduced search time and reduced fraud.

Practically, how will people use it – is it only when transacting property or any other time?

When property transactions occur, having an immutable record keeping process to refer back to later will be invaluable. All documents associated with the transaction of a particular property can be linked to a Colored Coin. Public information is placed into the form fields and tied to the metadata of the token representing the property. This can and will be seen on the block explorer when referencing the specific property in question.

Here’s a real-world example. Consider the recent forest fires in northern Alberta, Canada and the subsequent evacuation of Fort McMurray. Imagine that was you. Think about how easy it would be to forget to bring critical documents, such as the deed to your house, in the rush to evacuate. Having that deed in the blockchain means the title to your house is secure. Insurance companies can get the information they need to reimburse you, and you have the peace of mind of having a verifiable backup too.

What is your ambition, big picture?

Our short term objectives are scaling up in use cases. And both getting end-users and strategic partnerships in order to resolve use cases like: errors in public record, unknown liens, illegal deeds, missing heirs, forgeries, repairs and maintenance history, major system upgrades and warranties – to name a few. We are keeping it simple by working to address real world problems based on customer pain points rather than trying to take on too much too early.

Our long-term objectives are to build out a system that will ideally have recognition and integration with county clerks, and integration / adoption by title companies within the United States and Canada. The goal is for Ubitquity to have wide-user adoption by both small and incumbent players within the mortgage industry as well.

Do you think you are too early? Does it need any government support?

We don’t believe we’re too early at all based on the feedback from enterprise financial institutions, press and investors. If you take a look at the natural evolution of the Bitcoin space and the areas in which non-financial applications of the blockchain have been used, the timing is perfect.

We are not advocating for people to skip the legally mandated step of recording title transfers in the manner prescribed by each municipality.  We are simply building a parallel platform that will quickly rival the currently existing antiquated structures in place today.  We see our system as a 21st century supplement, layering on top of – and eventually integrating with – the archaic (and centralized) one in use today. Our system will simply set a higher standard for document recording, accessibility and utility overall. The level of trusted accuracy, and ease of use, coupled with significant cost savings for parties involved will become a no brainer for all involved in the housing industry. Since the housing industry reaches every aspect of our daily lives, we are excited to be able to democratize and reduce costs associated with real estate transactions.

Do you need any other partners / institutions to support you to get off the ground

We’ve 100% bootstrapped our prototype and upcoming alpha release. In my eyes, the support we need is pilot users actively using the platform to continue the momentum. We currently have a number of companies interested in the platform and one company that is adding a significant amount of metadata to our system while helping us build features that are both required and scalable across the real estate industries, i.e. mortgage companies, title companies.

How complicated is the technology behind blockchain?

When people refer to the “blockchain”, they really mean a group of computers talking to one another while following certain rules.  That’s been done before, but Blockchain brings something new to the table: The group of computers can agree with one another without a central server. Not only can blockchain technology facilitate this consensus, but it also resists attempts to cheat it, manipulate it, or stop it. The math, algorithms, and formulas behind blockchain technology are very complex, but they have been known and used for a long time. Whenever you hear about Merkle trees, hashing functions, or public keys, these are all math-based concepts that have been around for many decades. Satoshi Nakamoto was able to bring these concepts together to create the first blockchain via Bitcoin.

How does blockchain account for human error?

Human error is inherent to humans. “To err is human; to forgive, divine” (Alexander Pope, “Essay on Criticism”). The value of an immutable record is in its continued recording of events as they occurred.

If a human does input an error, that human can easily input a correction, but a continuous record of that error and correction will remain.  This is important for multiple reasons. Firstly, the knowledge of that being the case will help make those humans more cautious in their original data input. Second, because of the ability to look back and see exactly when and who made any sort of changes to the record gives that record veracity.

So for example, if an error is corrected by the same person, same day, then we can clearly see it is simply human error being corrected. However, if we see that a different person ‘corrected’ a record in the future, possibly to benefit them in some way, it is easily traceable and would naturally discourage such actions.

Eventually, we can safely assume most ‘corrections’ will simply be that. Human error corrections.  There are many errors that occur now and there are ways to legally remedy those errors. In fact, there is even error and omission insurance required by title professionals and real estate agents specifically for harm caused due to human or malicious error.

But those ‘mistakes’, whether malicious or not, are much harder to source back to the original creator. At Ubitquity we envision a whole new profession evolving to fill this need.  A blockchain data entry clerk, trained in a standardized format to follow best practices and ensure proper record keeping. We also envision a future where our platform is so user friendly and streamlined that virtually anyone can create and/or add to their existing record and have that ‘asset’ not only exist on the blockchain, but be an ever-evolving repository of ‘added value’ to the real world property.