It’s been a long road to digital maturity for Canada’s construction sector – not that you need to remind Mogens Smed.
“In this digital by default era, technology is absolutely crucial for the future of the construction industry, traditionally a tech laggard,” says the familiar face within the Calgary business community.
Former founder of both Smed International and DIRTT, Smed’s most recent venture, Falkbuilt Technologies, specializes in the design, manufacturing and building of digital component construction systems for interior construction.
Smed describes Falkbuilt as a “technology company” that is digitizing the conventional construction industry with an off-site manufacturing solution that involves pre-fabricating “digital” components – super studs, horizontals and cladding – and then installing them on site to build everything from reception areas to cubicles and board rooms to corner offices.
“Because digital components … are designed for disassembly, they are easily and quickly reconfigured when a client’s needs change,” he says, noting the company is working within industries such as health care, financial services, retail and commercial offices.
“It shortens the construction schedule, is far more sustainable than conventional construction and our prefab process increases the efficiency of labour on-site.”
Meanwhile, the company’s cloud-based platform, Echo, provides a new, productive way for stakeholders to meet in the cloud to discuss and make real time design changes.
“No matter where they are in the world, architects, designers, end users and other stakeholders use their mobile devices or desktop to meet inside the Revit model, experience the space and make real time design changes,” says Smed.
Falkbuilt is not alone in efforts to digitally transform the real estate industry. The growing tech ecosystem in Canada, combined with a thriving construction industry, has given birth to a massive movement dubbed PropTech that is meant to capture the massive innovation taking place across the country.
Short for property technology, PropTech covers a gamut of applications in both commercial and residential real estate, from digital construction collaboration to property management, home improvement to building automation, storage and logistics to energy management and listings services to planning and design.
A first-of-its-kind report by the Proptech Collective released earlier this year painted a picture of the Canadian landscape by examining 300 PropTech start-ups in Canada in commercial and residential real estate, as well as construction technology.
Eighty per cent of these companies were located in five hubs that included Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary and Kitchener-Waterloo, with the top three categories being viewing and imagery, building automation and IoTs and digital construction collaboration.
Some of the top funded PropTechs in Canada include Properly (residential brokerage and financing), Borrowell (online lending platform) and Avidbots (cleaning robots), as well as Falkbuilt (pre-fab interior construction), which raised $35 million through a Series A in 2018.
Of note, the report identified several trends, notably that access to talent, generous funding and a thriving real estate industry is providing strong foundations for PropTech growth.
It also noted the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of tech adoption.
“What was previous good-to-have is now essential,” said authors Courtney Cooper, Alice Guo and Stephanie Wood of the Proptech Collective. “PropTech firms have the opportunity to simplify and digitize existing processes, facilitate remote work and help firms re-imagine indoor space for tenants.”
The authors added that, with major real estate markets and leaders, as well as a deep tech talent pool, Canada as “the foundations for unparalleled opportunities in PropTech.”
The report pointed to more than a dozen startups in Alberta as leaders in the PropTech space, including Edmonton-founded Jobber, a cloud-based job-tracking and customer management software platform for small businesses such as cleaning, painting, HVAC and lawn care.
Co-founder and CEO Sam Pillar describes Jobber as an operating system that the sub-20 employee business segment can use to stay organized and do their work on a day-to-day basis, including job scheduling, customer tracking and billing.
“We span over about 50 different industries … and there are new ones that we’re discovering all the time,” he says, noting they generally fall into three categories: green, cleaning and contractors.
“The common denominator is that these are industry segments where the work is done at a customer’s property, whether that be at their home or in some cases their commercial property – that’s usually how we get lumped in at the edges of PropTech.”
Founded in 2010, Jobber raised $87 million as part of its Series C. Today, more than 100,000 service professionals in 47 countries use Jobber, with more than $10 billion of services billed annually.
Despite just recently celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary, Pillar says it’s still early days for Jobber – and technology adoption in home and commercial services, in general.
“We spend a lot of time talking to businesses about technology adoption, and many of them are still coming from a pen-and-paper environment,” he says. “The conversations are not about them coming over from a competitive service. Instead, it’s about them realizing they need to get out of these notebooks, push-pin boards and mass-tab spreadsheets.”
Why the push to digital now? Pillar believes it’s two-fold.
“A lot of small businesses in the past 18 months have pulled forward their adoption timeline for integrating technology into their businesses, if only to be better equipped in dealing with those challenges associated with the pandemic,” he says, pointing specifically to commercial and residential cleaning services as one of the largest growing segments for Jobber in the last 18 months. “While that technology adoption was always going to happen, it was just a matter of when.”
The other influencing factor is changing demographics – both within the industry itself, as well as with their customers.
“There is a younger generation of business owners who are taking over family businesses or starting new businesses, and they come from a younger generation that is more intuitively comfortable dealing with technology,” says Pillar.
“They are looking for technology to help run parts of their businesses that they know should be run by technology. To do that, they end up being more efficient, more effective and they deliver a better quality of service to customers. That is pulling forward the technology adoption timeline for the older generation of business owners who see that happening and realize that, in order to remain competitive, they need to adopt technology as well.”
Pillar says while Jobber does fit into the overall PropTech picture, he sees it as more of a platform company that is concerned, first and foremost, with the small business service provider and not necessarily the property owner.
“For us, one of the things that’s unique about Jobber that is relative to some of the companies that are in the PropTech space is we’re a platform business. We exist solely to support small business entrepreneurs,” he says.
“We have no interest in getting between our customers and theirs. We just want to do as good of a job as we can propping up and standing behind small businesses that we view as being incredibly important in modern economies.”