Every year, Suffolk Technologies welcomes the biggest innovators in the Architecture, Engineering, Construction, and Operation (AECO) space for an intense 6-week accelerator program, exposing early-stage entrepreneurs to every facet and detail of the built environment ecosystem. This year, in our fourth edition of the program, we selected seven companies and have been excited to see them progress through challenges they face as founders and technologists in the built world.
BOOST 4 received 200+ applications from 27 countries this year, more than twice the number of applications than when the program started in 2020. The applicants touched on all aspects of the built environment, with a strong showing across six key themes including artificial intelligence, supply chain efficiency, informed sustainability, field-focused digitization, design optimization, and workforce productivity.
The seven companies selected to participant in this year’s cohort, AGORUS, Emidat, Exodigo, Hammr, KayaAI, Sitelink, and Trunk Tools, are building solutions across these six themes and improving their products and go-to-market strategies with the support of Suffolk Technologies and our 22 industry partners.
Talk to me about the themes…
The question is not if artificial intelligence (AI) can help change the way we build, but rather how it will affect our industry. AI has already begun to transform our industry significantly – new technologies can automate tasks such as checking 2D design documentation for discrepancies, ensuring code compliance, and identifying coordination clashes. Several emerging technologies are using image recognition to automate laborious tasks such as facade inspections, progress tracking, and surveying. In fact, 45% of BOOST 4 applicants, and almost all chosen participants, note AI as a core feature of their products.
Having said that, AI is unlikely to replace construction professionals anytime soon. Many industry reports rank construction at the bottom of the pack when it comes to AI impact1 and, while we believe this impact will be large, we foresee AI working alongside construction professionals to reduce drudgery and drive productivity instead of displacing workers. AI will serve as a co-pilot to automate back-office tasks, prompt contractually driven actions during a project, and easily serve up information when and where it is needed. The differentiation for AI-enabled applications will be centered around the details and timing of inputs and outputs – AI layers that easily integrate into existing systems and processes will be the quickest and easiest for the industry to adopt.
Supply Chain Efficiency
Construction input costs have increased by an average of 26% in 2021 and 2022 due to factors that include lack of transparency throughout the supply chain and delays caused by macroeconomic disruptions such as COVID-192. With limited options available for reducing the cost of raw materials, construction firms are turning to new technologies to help them track the movement of materials, monitor inventory levels, optimize procurement processes, and reduce material waste, ultimately leading to smoother operations and cost savings. For example, AGORUS is utilizing AI-enabled software and robotics to precisely cut and assemble customized timber members of buildings to be installed rapidly on the jobsite, ultimately reducing assembly time, and mitigating costly waste.
We believe the lack of visibility throughout the supply chain can be addressed with technological solutions. General contractors and developers can increasingly leverage software solutions to capitalize on once hard-to-find purchasing power and begin purchasing larger ticket items, such as electrical and mechanical equipment. Other solutions are empowering the offsite tracking and management of materials. For instance, KayaAI has been building tools to integrate AI-driven visibility into our ecosystems’ pre-existing processes and increase lead time visibility on construction projects.
In an era when sustainable business practices are increasingly becoming a competitive advantage, construction firms are exploring how they can address sustainability challenges and transparently communicate their impact. No matter what path firms choose, the first step will be measuring and reporting on various sustainability metrics to demonstrate commitment to sustainable development and meet the demands of stakeholders, regulators, and the broader community. Helping companies navigate the first step are companies such as Emidat. Emidat helps building material manufacturers easily create and distribute environmental product declarations (EPDs), the foundational impact data for embodied carbon stakeholders can leverage to make informed decisions.
The ability to establish industry-wide sustainability baselines will drive the implementation of new processes and methodologies that can power continuous improvements that reduce the built world’s environmental footprint. Metadata collection and aggregation are critical in the coming years as the U.S. slowly, but surely, adopts and pushes for increased reporting and visibility into the materials and processes used to build. There are two key challenges that this new wave of regulations will present for commercial real estate owners: 1) Getting access to reliable and trusted data, which is most often found at the source (such as manufacturers and producers), but also the most difficult to access, and 2) Helping decision-makers across the value chain prioritize the best ROI solutions when it comes to reducing their impact.
We are excited to increasingly observe technology tools catching hold with a ‘bottom up’ approach, where adoption starts with superintendents and project managers, rather than a centralized innovation team. The ‘top down’ approach to design, project management, building information model (BIM) creation, and reporting has enabled the industry to set standards, adopt new technologies, enforce consistency, ensure back-office efficiency, and drive continuous improvement in enterprise-wide programs and standard operating procedures. In contrast, the ‘bottom up’ adoption promises to streamline workflows and increase productivity in the field, empower frontline professionals to address challenges with data at their fingertips, and address root causes of project delays and cost overruns.
To reap the full benefits of a streamlined, real-time workflow, the perpetual dissonance between BIM and field updates needs to be solved – a gap Sitelink is trying to address with their AR-powered field app. Their solution was built to enhance collaboration for construction teams by bringing BIM to the jobsite. This explosion of field technology coincides with demographic trends we expect to gain momentum in the coming decade. As more than half of the current labor force phases out of the skilled trades, we expect tech-enabled efficiency gains to become more critical and demanded by the workforce, incentivizing network effects rather than forcing outdated tools on individuals in the field.
As building designs and code complexity increase, optimizing the time that it takes to create design and construction documents in 2D, and 3D has become a focus for design and construction professionals – and a great seeding ground of many tech companies. With added complexity, the time and effort required from professionals to generate a valid, code-compliant set of drawings has increased tremendously. One way to accelerate the production of these documents is assisting with reality capture of existing site conditions, which helps to not only speed up the design process, but also avoids unexpected problems in the future. This has become especially relevant for project starts. Having accurate information from the outset reduces requests for information in-field, minimizes rework, and streamlines the schedule. Sub-surface mapping solutions, such as the one being developed by Exodigo, can provide a clear picture of the underground, informing partners where to design and build safely with a high level of predictability, and doing so faster and more efficiently than existing intrusive methods.
There are rich opportunities for optimizing design beyond project starts as well. Other solutions focus on AI and automation of certain repetitive design tasks. Today, designs are often created from scratch, rather than leveraging institutional knowledge accumulated through previous projects. Thankfully, pulling in previous details and specs from similar projects from the past is becoming easier with today’s tools, helping architects be more productive with their time. Furthermore, the ability for multiple architects to simultaneously collaborate on a drawing set has circumvented the need for downloading or sharing large file formats, avoiding previously disjointed workflows. With so many components to design, such as balancing aesthetic considerations with functionality, sustainability, and cost-efficiency, technologies that enable a more informed, collaborative design process can meaningfully affect change in the industry.
Workforce productivity stands at the core of the AECO industry’s success and profitability. In an environment where the cost of materials and labor are increasing, optimizing the performance of the construction workforce is critical. From skilled laborers to engineers to project managers to back-office functional roles, harnessing the full potential of human resources is not only essential for meeting deadlines and staying within budget, but also for ensuring the safety and quality of construction projects.
Many startups are addressing issues of productivity in the AECO space. For example, Hammr identified an urgent need among SMB contractors through their social media community (the “Bred to Build” podcast) and addressed those needs by building a tool for automating back-office processes. Other early-stage startups are looking at ways to improve workforce productivity by focusing on the field, solving challenges related to training and upskilling the workforce or aligning pay incentives on the jobsite. Trunk Tools addresses the skilled labor shortage in construction by creating easy to use tools for the deskless workforce, including AI-driven superintendent bots that help answer on-site questions and task-based incentives to drive productivity. With better tools in the field and in the back-office, productivity of the jobsite will increase over time.
What Comes Next
The seven startups selected to participate in the BOOST 4 program spent six weeks working with Suffolk Technologies throughout October and November. The BOOST program allowed them to explore and define new use cases within AECO and refine their products and go-to-market strategies. More than half of all BOOST participants have piloted their technology on Suffolk jobsites and many are also exploring pilots with our Operating Partners including Axiom Builders, Holcim, Sellen Construction, and Century Drywall.
If you are interested in learning more about the BOOST program or becoming involved in the future, please reach out to [email protected] and a member of our team will be in touch.
This year, BOOST is presented in partnership with 22 industry partners including Group Amana, Autodesk, ARCO Murray, Axiom Builders, Century Drywall, Feldman Geospatial, Gunderson Dettmer, Holcim, JLL Spark, Liberty, Liberty Mutual, LMRE, McCusker-Gill, The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, Moog Construction, Procore, Sellen Construction, Suffolk, Suffolk Design, Swire Properties, Thornton Tomasetti, and Zwick Construction.
Construction has traditionally been viewed through the lens of cost and schedule. Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that a third dimension is coming: carbon.
You don’t have to take our word for it, look at how legislation is moving. New York City’s Local Law 97 requires most buildings over 25,000 square feet to meet aggressive greenhouse gas and energy efficiency standards by next year. Under Boston’s Article 37, all new projects must meet certain performance levels and the city is also currently implementing BERDO which sets emissions standards for large existing buildings. California got into the act last year with the California Green Building Standards Code, and the EU is rapidly implementing legislation that will have impacts for US companies with a footprint in Europe.
But legislation is almost a lagging indicator, as the rest of the market is charging ahead. Investors believe that sustainability is the future. One of the world’s largest investors, BlackRock’s Larry Fink, wrote in his 2022 Annual Letter that the next 1,000 startups worth $1 billion will be those that “help the world decarbonize and make the energy transition affordable for all consumers.” And investors are putting their money where their mouth is; Morgan Stanley estimates that sustainable investment funds had $2.8 trillion under management in 2022 alone, almost doubling from 2018.
Real estate lenders are also increasingly giving loans tied to sustainability performance. With these, borrowers can increase their access to capital, often at more favorable terms, while lenders can better manage climate risk and meet their sustainability commitments to regulators and investors.
Consumers, too, are driving the trend towards sustainability. 70% of new home buyers say green features are desirable or a “must-have”, according to a 2021 survey from the National Association of Home Builders. Almost 1 in 6 are willing to pay more for an “environmentally-friendly” home, and well over half (57%) say they are willing to pay an additional $5,000 for a home if efficiency features will enable them to save at least $1,000 a year in utilities. The willingness to pay also extends to commercial real estate consumers, e.g. tenants. A CBRE analysis of 20,000 US office buildings found that rent was 31% higher for LEED certified buildings; a premium that still held (at 4%) when holding other factors constant.
Given all of these factors, it should come as no surprise that 80% of construction leaders believe sustainability will be a major, near-term driver transforming the industry.
Governments, investors, and consumers are all pushing sustainability because the built world is the largest single contributor to climate change. The built world is responsible for 40% of global C02 emissions, with concrete, alone, accounting for as much as 8%. In London, construction creates 14.5% of particulate matter in the air, a figure that is likely similar for other large cities. And in the United States, construction produces 600 million tons of waste annually.
Requirements for a Successful Sustainable Contech Solution
Emissions in the built world can be categorized into two sources: The emissions associated with raw material processing and construction, i.e. embodied carbon (accounting for ~30%), and the emissions associated with running and occupying the building, i.e. operational carbon (accounting for the remaining ~70%). So technology solutions aimed at enabling the built world to meet these emerging demands for sustainability will fall into one of these two categories.
But it’s not enough for a sustainability solution to reduce GHG emissions or eliminate waste. Successful solutions will combine a strong climate impact with a significant business benefit that hits the bottom line.
Certainly, governments are providing carrots and sticks that will make sustainability more economically viable, and they will play an important role in the journey to green construction and green buildings. But solutions that can rapidly provide both financial ROI and GHG reduction, regardless of aid, will have the greatest likelihood of wide, rapid adoption.
Suffolk Tech’s Sustainability Investments
So, what does all this mean at Suffolk Tech? We invest in solutions to measure, manage, and mitigate the climate impact of the built world, the single largest contributor to GHG emissions. And the solutions we invest in will outcompete incumbents because they are better, faster, and cheaper.
Here are two examples of the kinds of companies we’re backing in this space.
Construction companies currently rely on diesel generators to provide the power they need to build, but there are plenty of issues: it can be hard to hear over the rumble of these giant internal combustion generators, and nearby neighbors certainly don’t like it. Plus they require substantial maintenance, and, if they break down, work comes to a halt. And, of course, burning all that diesel fuel creates tons of GHG emissions.
Moxion Power solves this noisy, dirty problem with a zero emission mobile battery that provides 75kW of power and over 600 kWh of energy. Moxion manufactures their electric generators and also provides temporary-power-as-a-service to customers in the construction, entertainment/events, and electrified transportation industries. Their battery gensets have the same dimensions, run-times, and performance capabilities as traditional diesel generators, with the added benefits of being clean, quiet, and offering superior load flexibility, all while maintaining a lower total cost of ownership (“TCO”).
Because it’s quiet, workers on-site can hear each other more clearly, which improves safety, and work can start earlier in the day because there’s no noise to disturb sleeping neighbors. And it’s extremely reliable, running on software-defined hardware with no moving parts.
Moxion is also a great example of how Suffolk Technologies provides far more than funding to help a company succeed. When the company went through our BOOST Accelerator, we partnered with Suffolk Construction to put Moxion on a jobsite, providing the company, early in its life, with a real-world jobsite where they could exactly determine the requirements their solution would need to meet.
Where Moxion primarily addresses the problem of embodied carbon during construction, WINT provides sustainability and financial benefits during construction and building operations by reducing water waste and preventing water damage.
About a quarter of the water that enters buildings, construction sites, and industrial facilities is wasted through leaks that go undetected. What’s more, water damage accounts for nearly a quarter (24%) of builder’s insurance claims. Water is also a precious resource for people, agriculture, industry and ecosystems, especially in regions such as the American Southwest.
Using market-tested IoT and AI technologies, WINT detects leaks, pinpoints the source and then provides immediate mitigation by shutting off the water to the area that’s leaking, preventing water loss, reducing water bills, and avoiding serious damage. The ROI is so significant, insurance companies are partnering with the startup so that their policyholders will use it.
Again, Suffolk Tech provided more to WINT than cash. We helped the company expand from Israel to the US and gain a strong foothold in the new construction market. We also helped the company understand first-hand how the handoff process works between an owner and a general contractor for insurance and other critical items. Construction companies are often risk-averse, and few are willing to act as a development partner, so getting that kind of experience as you’re honing the solution is critical to market success. Suffolk Tech makes this happen for our portfolio companies.
There’s a massive opportunity to create ROI while enabling sustainable built world solutions. Suffolk Tech is not only investing in these technologies at an early stage, but is connecting startups with our ecosystem to put their products into real-world applications so they can scale to industry-wide adoption.
Carbon is coming. Suffolk Tech is here to support and invest in the companies leading this transformation.
If you’re building a startup that addresses these or other pressing issues in the built environment, please reach out to our team.