When executives at Rudin Management Company started looking for an operating system in 2009 to help them manage their building portfolio, the market for property technology was still in its infancy, and they came up empty-handed.
A decade later, “proptech” is a hot buzzword in commercial real estate, as developers and investors seek an edge in buying, selling and managing their properties. The swelling market has attracted venture capitalists, who invested a record $12 billion in proptech start-ups globally in 2017, according to a report from RE:Tech, a tech research marketing agency.
And Rudin, a 94-year-old, family-run company, is now at the forefront of this booming tech sector.
The move into proptech grew out of necessity for Rudin, said Michael Rudin, a senior vice president at the company, which owns and operates 16 office buildings and 18 apartment buildings in New York.
The company wanted an operating system that functioned like that of a smartphone. “We had a lot of technology in our buildings, but no interoperability between the various systems,” Mr. Rudin said. “We wanted those various silos to be able to communicate with each other and share data.”
No such product existed. So Rudin spun off a company to develop a system, called Nantum, which captures real-time data on metrics like building occupancy, water usage and office temperatures.
Nantum now runs across most of Rudin’s portfolio, and has enabled the company to reduce electric consumption by 40 percent and steam consumption by 47 percent.
“Our building operators know down to the minute when they need to start up a building in the morning, and when they can start ramping it down,” Mr. Rudin said.
Prescriptive Data, a Rudin subsidiary, is marketing Nantum to other property owners. It is so far in 12 different real estate portfolios, totaling 25 million square feet, in four states.
New York, where Rudin is based, has become a global hub for proptech. Venture capital investments in real estate technology in New York rose by 133 percent last year, totaling more than $2 billion, according to data provided by CREtech, a media and research organization. Most of the capital has so far been plowed into ventures on the residential side, but the commercial sector is heating up.
“New York is definitely the leader in proptech,” said Julie Samuelsthe executive director of Tech:NYC, a nonprofit coalition of the tech leaders. “And that makes sense when you’ve got so many national and international real estate concerns here.”
Proptech is reshaping the real estate sector in the same way technological innovation has transformed so many other industries, like Uber’s shake-up of the taxi business and Airbnb’s rapid expansion in the lodging market. The most visible shifts so far have been in residential real estate, where companies like Opendoor, Redfin and Zillow have built platforms to ease home transactions through the “instant buying” business model.
On the commercial side, shared work-space providers like Convene, Industrious and WeWork, are disrupting the office market. WeWork, which was valued at $47 billion in an investment round this year, announced last month that it had filed for an initial public offering. It has grown into one of the world’s biggest commercial landlords; as of Dec. 31, it had about 401,000 memberships across 425 locations.
Investment opportunities are so plentiful that “there’s sort of a get-rich-or-die-trying attitude out there,” said Ashkán Zandiehchief intelligence officer at CREtech.
The real estate sector has long lagged in innovation, and insiders say the growing interest is a welcome change.
“Real estate is such a long-game business, and it’s such a fragmented and idiosyncratic business that it’s been challenging for outsiders to break in,” said Zach Aaronsa co-founder of MetaProp, a New York venture capital firm focused on proptech. “But there’s been a global shift in the talent going into the industry, and investors are waking up to the opportunity.”
MetaProp invests in early-stage businesses, and helps connect them with big industry players who can educate them about the industry’s needs and how their products could be expanded. The firm recently opened a co-working space for proptech start-ups in Midtown Manhattan, in cooperation with the city’s economic development corporation. Called PropTech Place, it features 25 rentable desks and exhibits of new technologies under development.
“We wanted a place where people from organizations both large and small could have a home base where they’re going to meet like-minded people,” Mr. Aarons said.
Venture capital investments in proptech companies have taken off in the past few years. This year is poised to set another record, Mr. Zandieh said, noting that April was the second consecutive month with more than a billion dollars of venture financing in the industry.
But because there is no unified definition of how the sector should be measured, investment estimates often vary by source, said Zak Schwarzmana partner at MetaProp. For example, WeWork, which has attracted billions of dollars in investment, is not always counted as proptech.
Established industry players are actively trying to keep up, said Tomasz Piskorskian associate professor of real estate at Columbia Business School who teaches a course in proptech. “One way is to buy solutions to improve efficiency,” he said. “Another is to develop solutions themselves in-house, or set up venture capital funds within the company that will co-invest in solutions.”
Rudin has followed all three strategies. Its success with Nantum has led the company to invest in outside proptech start-ups, including one called Enertiv.
Housed on the top floor of an office building in New York’s garment district, Enertiv builds smarter platforms to help run the physical systems in commercial buildings, said Connell McGillthe company’s chief executive.
To help managers reduce operating expenses, for instance, Enertiv can install sensors to track the performance of elevators, boilers and other equipment. One Enertiv product provides panoramic digital replicas of equipment rooms; selecting any piece of machinery provides details like real-time sensor data and maintenance history. The system can even assign performance ratings to each piece of equipment, and make maintenance recommendations, based on a growing database of more than four billion hours of performance data.
That data provides greater visibility into equipment operation, helping to identify problems before a breakdown. “We’ve been chipping away at equipment-level transparency,” Mr. McGill said.
Blueprint Power, another New York-based start-up focused on building efficiency, helps owners wring new revenue from their portfolios. The firm was established after deregulation in the energy markets allowed building owners with their own renewable generation capacity to essentially become power plants.
Blueprint’s system helps owners manage their energy assets across their portfolio and sell their surplus power, said Robyn Beavers, the company’s chief executive.
“We are bringing this automation and data-driven behavior to the grid in a way that hasn’t happened before,” Ms. Beavers said. “We manage and monetize.”
Scheduled to be introduced this year, Blueprint was spun out of Lennar Corporation, the country’s largest homebuilder, where Ms. Beavers had been advising the company on venture investments in real estate tech. She said New York’s reputation as the “real estate capital of the world” made the city the obvious place to begin operations. The decision was bolstered by New York State’s clean energy standard, which mandates that half of the state’s electricity come from renewables by 2030.
The city’s proptech scene is increasingly dynamic, she said, citing the diversity of companies, and growing interest from large real estate companies to find creative ways to form partnerships with young start-ups.
“It’s a fun, collaborative environment with a lot of iterations,” Ms. Beavers said. “It’s a very optimistic time.”