Big Names at MIPIM Propel Talk the Future of Proptech

Leading venture capitalists as well as vendors and top real estate executives share what they think is ahead

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Scientists tell us that humans are a social species. We love to gather together. Certainly, no subcategory of humans is more social than real estate people, who will always tell you that theirs remains an in-person, relationship business, despite the impact of technology, COVID-19 and seemingly any other obstacle that can be thrown in the path of their schmoozing and dealmaking.

No surprise then that last week’s MIPIM Propel conference at Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center of New York drew hundreds of real estate professionals, technology executives and venture capitalists together for the post-pandemic, face-to-face renewal of the granddaddy of all proptech conferences, which began in 2015 as the MetaProp-created flagship event of New York City Real Estate Tech Week.

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The two-day event had the typical array of panels, competitions and fireside chats, but as usual with such conferences, some of the most interesting conversations were among attendees who mingled in common areas to chat and exchange ideas and opinions over a beverage.

PropTech Insider engaged in some of these conversations, asking prominent and aspiring proptech attendees what they thought about returning to mass conferences like MIPIM Propel and what they see as the exciting trends and challenges for proptech in 2022.

Here are some excerpts, edited for length and clarity, from those conversations:

 

Charles Lorum, executive director at Nordic Innovation House:

This conference is definitely worthwhile. There needs to be a major event where people from all over the world can gather and share ideas. Conferences are really the only practical way to do that. And it’s valuable for us to get face-to-face interaction not just with people that we plan on meeting, but the random interactions that aren’t possible through a lot of other platforms.

The biggest opportunities are around introducing sustainable solutions — in a wider sense, technology for a legacy industry that really hasn’t had to change and adopt new technologies in a while. We have a really good window now to introduce new solutions to make managing and owning real estate, anything to do with real estate, much more efficient. The challenges are —  how do we do business? How do we make business happen in this kind of COVID environment that hopefully we’re learning how to live with. Also, how do we adjust to how people are using buildings differently? I think this affects retail and commercial the most. But what’s exciting about this conference is that people are coming with new ideas and solutions for that type of thing.

 

Aaron Block, managing director and co-founder of MetaProp:

I’m blown away that we are meeting in person here and that the enthusiasm level is so high. People are happy to be together, people are happy to do deals, meet new people, network and listen to great content. I’m just totally floored. We have almost 1,000 people here, which is remarkable, almost shocking. We’re set up for next year and the following year here [at the Javits Center]. I think this is going to be 5,000 to 10,000 people in the next three years.

As for 2022, when will the music stop? You can only make hay when the sun is shining and the sun is shining brightly. This is a time to be doing great deals with great entrepreneurs. Everything’s going in the right direction and it won’t last forever. So where will we see the cracks first? How do you make sure you’re not the one stuck without a seat when the music stops? When will the music stop? Nobody knows, but we’re watching the signals carefully. In the meantime, we’re very happy with the performance of the [proptech] space overall and certainly with our portfolio and our startups.

 

Robert Entin, executive vice president and CIO at Vornado Realty Trust:

Being together at conferences live is great. I am fully vaccinated, boosted, I feel very safe. There’s just no substitute for being face to face. It’s great to be back.

We [Vornado] have a lot of very important development projects that we have to get done in 2022. That’s always a challenge for us because more and more analytics are needed every year. The budgets and the forecasting process gets more refined. I think probably the biggest challenge, particularly given what we’re doing in the Penn District, is from a technology point of view, to get all this stuff rolled out and successful. We’re putting so much tech right now into Penn 1, because that’s the building being renovated. And [Penn 2] is right around the corner. With Moynihan Station and the [James A. Farley Post Office building redevelopment], we’re going to get a lot in there as well. We look at the Penn District as a campus.

[More generally in the industry], I’m pretty much on the cynical side usually, because the real estate industry has always been laggards. Even through cycles where there was tons of VC money, a lot of it never came to fruition. But I will say, as somewhat of a pessimist, that there’s more technology-ready people today. I think the market is much more ready to accept digitization of real estate, way more than they’ve ever been. But are they there yet? It takes years for a mature ecosystem, so I wouldn’t say we’re there. But I think it looks good. There will be a lot of money lost in any VC explosion, but I think there will be a lot of good, transformative pieces of technology to come out of the cycle.

 

Thomas Bigagli, ventures lead at Plug and Play

I’m used to going to the [MIPIM] meeting in France, which is huge, because it’s not only proptech but real estate generally. But I have been really impressed by the quality of the [Propel] speakers. We have top-notch speakers that came from all around the world to speak at this event. I knew some of them, but not all of them. It’s a chance to network a bit, which is great. I’ll let you know if we invest in anyone.

Real estate and construction is one of the richest industries globally, but has been one of the latest to innovate and enter the tech ecosystem to digitize their operations. But it seems that in three to five years, we will see a major boom in the proptech and contech scene. The good thing about contech and proptech is that at the end of the day they’re pretty much horizontal, more than vertical. You have lots of fintech-slash-proptech startups and lots of energy startups in the proptech scene. Proptech is related to so many different industries, making it even more interesting in my opinion. 

I expect to see more and more startups in this space. Also, on the investment side of things, I can tell you that the generalistic VC funds I know and have been working and co-investing with have been launching new VC firms focusing on smart cities or proptech. The space will see a lot of things happening in the coming years and will continue to grow and get more digital.

 

Minja Yan, an associate on the real estate development team at Millennium Commercial Properties:

Every time I go to a proptech conference, I always look for construction, architecture and design technology that can help us in the design and development process. Or some of the technologies that can help us to do construction faster and safer.

The biggest challenges I’ve seen attending these events is that there’s a lack of education or a gap of knowledge between the proptech startups and the real estate development professionals who are not very familiar with the technology side. There are [proptech] vocabularies and languages that we don’t understand as a developer. When technology people talk, we still have a learning curve to understand what they’re saying. Same thing for technology. They might not fully understand all the words we use or all of the details in our development world. So there’s a gap. 

Both sides need to provide better educational content. Maybe the top tech startups should provide more educational content for their clients and really think about it from the perspective of the developer.

 

Wouter Truffino, CEO and founder of Holland ConTech & PropTech:

Of course it’s great to be back and to start traveling again after the pandemic. It has surprised me how many people are here right now.

The biggest issue is getting real estate involved. There are so many solutions out there that one of the biggest issues is they really need to start working together. Collaboration is important when we talk about the value that technology is bringing to real estate. Having a good solution is not enough. We need to get real estate people to understand what we are doing with that technology, how we can make office life better, but also lower energy consumption.

I like the talk of [Michael Phillips, principal and president of Jamestown]. He said that the high-value asset class of buildings is doing something with [environmental, social and governance] ESG, but, in the middle, that asset class has a big problem. Well, that’s 99 percent of real estate in the middle. So what are we going to do with that real estate that is in the middle? How are we going to make that more attractive and create more value for those real estate assets? I think that’s where proptech comes in, to make that possible.

 

Renata Thomé, senior strategist, co-founder and chief creative officer at Alpha’a:

I’m attending this conference to connect with other companies that are innovating in the proptech sector and also to be with our amazing friends at MetaProp. The conference is really great. I’m happy to be here and to see again some of the people that I could not have the opportunity to be with over the past almost two years. I think we have around 15 percent of the attendees at the conference today coming from international places. That’s a great thing to see; not only the physical gathering happening again, but also people from different places reuniting in New York City.

COVID turned out to be a blessing for our business at Alpha’a, because we were always a hybrid platform that operated in between the online and physical space. People had a better understanding and accepted what we were doing in terms of art online, after COVID started. That was a positive thing. Another thing that gave us a competitive advantage is that we had production in place. We had facilities already in place in a variety of different geographical regions — the U.S., Latin America and most recently, the U.K. and Europe. To continue producing, exporting and delivering artwork to all those different places wasn’t a big challenge. But, again, it’s good to be back to the physical interactions and to be back together at an event like this.

 

Marcus Moufarrige, founder and CEO of ility:

I think the conference is great. I think there’s a really good mix of people here. And I notice there’s a bit of an international contingent, which is really good.

What I’m seeing in proptech is that there have been a lot of disparate solutions, a lot of point solutions. Sometimes it gets a little complicated for owners of the assets to decide what they’re going to choose. I’m starting to hear a little bit of talk about responsiveness, about being able to react and respond to what’s happening in the future. I think that’s really the theme of what’s emerging in proptech now. How do you respond to the new normal? How do you respond to what’s going to happen in six months, a year and three years? I think that’s really happening. It’s really important that there has always been sort of, “I’ve got this problem and I’m trying to find this solution.” I think it’s much more important to focus on the strength of the capability to respond to what might come next. Nobody knows what that’s going to be, but I think that’s a really healthy thing for the industry.

 

Kevin Danehy, CEO North America at Willow:

I’m excited to be here. MIPIM is so highly regarded. It’s been a long time coming for me. I haven’t had the occasion to be here, so I’m thrilled to be here today. And I’m looking forward to going to Cannes [France] in the spring.

The three things on a positive basis, is number one, proptech is now being embraced by real estate organizations and leaders in a way that two years ago it was not. Number two, there are now organizations that are developing critical mass and capabilities, where there are very real solutions for existing problems. And, number three, the opportunity to begin to create scale through growth and consolidation is happening. 

The challenges are that there’s a lot of capital chasing business. So, some really overinflated deals are being made, in my opinion. And, number two, there are still too many emerging companies and categories that have not yet proven their value.

Philip Russo can be reached at prusso@commercialobserver.com.