The Innovators: Suffolk Technologies
In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.
Innovation isn't always about solving a problem yourself. Sometimes the key is to recognize when someone else has an idea, or the spark of an idea, that will lead to a solution, and then provide critical support.
That is the thinking behind Suffolk Technologies' program Suffolk Boost, started last September, which the company describes as a "mini-accelerator" to bring together the founders of promising tech startups in the construction business with Suffolk executives, industry experts and academics to push those startups forward.
Suffolk Technologies is the tech arm of Suffolk Capital, a subsidiary of Boston-based Suffolk Construction Co. The tech arm was launched to invest in new construction and design technologies.
Suffolk makes a financial investment in the Boost companies, but the program also offers access to a spectrum of expertise to help the startups solve a specific construction problem, expand their networks and let the industry know that the new tech is available.
"The idea behind the program is to widen our funnel and be the first in our space to create a kind of Shark Tank incubation space for companies to come in and pitch their innovations," said Suffolk Technologies Operating Director Parker Mundt, who oversees the program, which picked its first finalists this past October.
In partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Real Estate, Bain Capital Ventures and other organizations, Suffolk Boost is an intense four-week program for the finalists. They have access to Suffolk executives but also MIT professors and industry influencers, along with opportunities to test their tech at Suffolk project sites and a demo day to showcase their tech to the construction industry.
The 2008 recession taught the construction industry that those who adopted new technologies emerged stronger than those who didn't, Mundt said. The aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic will pose the same sort of challenges, especially as construction companies try to cope with labor shortages and rising material costs. Thus, innovation is critical, he said.
The company's promotion of new technology has earned it the title of Bisnow Innovator.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bisnow: How did you go about picking the startups as finalists for the Boost program?
Mundt: We reviewed 84 companies and from them picked five finalists. The most important thing was that they are laser-focused on fixing a problem that we see today in the construction or real estate world. The startups can specialize in any tech that brings better efficiency to the industry, but we're especially interested in startups in design, supply chains, fintech and environmental tech.
We looked for finalists led by very strong founders, people who have had some kind of roots in real estate and construction and who are really seeking to get a stronger foothold in the construction industry by bringing out useful technology.
Bisnow: The program is more than just investing in these startups.
Mundt: Much more. We wanted to provide resources beyond capital to accelerate their innovation over the course of the four-week program. They have access to any connections that we might have in the construction, design and real estate spaces. We made introductions for them and host seminars with academics that they participate in.
The goal after the four weeks is to either have solved that problem or have a road map to solve it. But it doesn't really end after four weeks. That's really just the beginning. At that point, Suffolk Technologies will take a small investment in the company, and we will continue to work alongside it as it rolls out its new tech.
Bisnow: How far along did the startups need to be?
Mundt: Any level of development, including everything from two founders with a desk to a company with a product and early sales.
Bisnow: Who did you pick?
Mundt: One is Canvas out of San Francisco, which is building advanced robotics for construction, targeting drywall finish and painting as areas of application. Specifically, through the Boost program, Canvas seeks to quantify the potential impact of robotics automation on construction scheduling and cost. Regardless of what your wall may look like, Canvas' goal is to be three times more efficient than traditional drywall finishing practices.
There's also Diamond Age, which wants to automate the construction of single-family homes, with the objective of making them more affordable. You can think of the company as a "factory-in-the-field" with three-axis gantries with end-of-arm robotics tools. Diamond Age strives to produce a home in just 30 days with about 50% of the work built through automation, which would be especially useful for affordable housing developers, as they struggle with high costs and a lack of labor. Through Boost, the company believes it can set up and scale a successful construction business.
Bisnow: That's two in robotics.
Mundt: That's right. There's also Thrux out of New York, which specializes in MEP design environment software that links engineering specifications with architecture and cost, thus rethinking the way we approach MEP design and construction.
The other two are Flexbase, which helps construction businesses get paid faster and stay cash flow positive with a payment automation platform, construction credit cards and a working capital program, and PassiveLogic, which has created the world’s first fully autonomous building control platform. Its goal is to bring autonomous controls from self-driven vehicles to the larger buildings market so that users can design their own custom autonomous systems without needing an engineering team.
Bisnow: Will there be more finalists in the future?
Mundt: Yes. The second cohort for Boost — Boost 2, we're calling it — will be selected this fall. There's a lot of interest in the program. The first finalists are out in the marketplace, and we want to open the program out as much as possible. We're looking to innovate across the entire industry, and that innovation is sparked by being very open and sharing ideas with other people who are trying to deal with similar challenges.