REBNY CTO Chris Beach On the Trade Group’s Proptech Push

Even some of the Real Estate Board of New York's more conservative firms, he said, are leaning into new access and occupancy technology

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Chris Beach was tasked with reviving the Technology Committee of the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) when the organization hired him as its chief technology officer nearly four years ago.

Since then, Beach has tried to upload proptech innovations to REBNY’s general membership through the Technology Committee and its partnerships and events, primarily the annual PropTech Challenge.

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In an industry that increasingly seeks to adopt technology to remain competitive and to meet the challenges of new environmental regulations, the task of educating REBNY’s membership is more vital — and accepted — than ever, Beach said when he spoke with PropTech Insider in mid-January.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PropTech Insider: How did you come to be REBNY’s chief technology officer?

Chris Beach: I’ve been at REBNY since July of 2019. I’ve been working in the real estate industry for about 20 years. I was CTO at my previous company, iStar, and saw an opportunity to come to REBNY and work in this organization.

How was your mission as CTO at REBNY described when you accepted the position?

I think that the big thing when I first started here was reviving the Technology Committee. We focus on that here, especially with engaging members. Basically the Technology Committee focuses on proptech solutions and innovations. This provides a forum to convene and discuss regulatory issues, relevant news, and to engage in a productive dialogue with the public sector.

The overall community is basically made up of members who are CTOs, other executives, engineers, such as building engineers, property managers, etc., from all the major real estate firms that are members here at REBNY.

How does REBNY’s tech committee operate? How many are on it and what’s its role in serving all the members of REBNY?

Basically, the tech committee has about 15 members. One of the things that we do with the tech committee is the annual event called the PropTech Challenge. We partnered with Commercial Observer on this last year. This started as a simple hackathon about six years ago. Now it’s a daylong showcase that includes speakers and panel discussions, and highlights innovative companies that are solving challenges for the real estate industry.

Generally, we focus on about three to four categories, and develop problem sets for each of these categories. Then we ask the technology companies to submit their solutions that address these specific issues. And then we have teams that evaluate the submissions and pick the top three that represent each category. That’s followed by a demo day where the top three submissions for each category present.

Have you set a date for the 2023 event?

We’re currently in the process of determining plans for the next PropTech Challenge later this year. We’re considering how the challenge could evolve further in the future.

Do your organization members adopt any of these companies in any form as a result of the PropTech Challenge?

We’ve had a number of different startups involved over the years, but I don’t have specifics on which companies have actually adopted these different technologies. I know that some of them have.

How does REBNY’s tech committee operate on a day-to-day basis? Do you have an agenda that comes from the members, or do you find tech to discuss and then go out to the membership with information?

It’s a little bit of both. We meet on a pretty regular basis, generally once a month. Sometimes we’re going over policy that’s coming from legislation, something that maybe we were presenting. For example, we have an excellent relationship with NYSERDA [the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority]. They’ve been a great partner for us with the PropTech Challenge. We’re looking for ways to collaborate with them on their newest challenge, and they came in and presented to our committee. And we’re working with them on their next initiative, which is the kind of thing we discuss in the committee meetings.

Other times the members themselves will bring up things that they would like to discuss or share. It’s an opportunity for leaders in the real estate industry who are highly interested in technology to convene and collaborate in a shared space that is a real benefit to the members. They get to hear what other members are doing in regard to all sorts of different technology challenges.

Of those challenges, what are the technology priorities that have arisen for the tech committee and the membership in general?

I think the largest for folks is Local Law 97 — looking for technologies that can help them get into compliance with their buildings. Cybersecurity is always top of mind for a lot of folks. We have an increasing number of office technology and IoT products that are on building networks. Keeping those secure, keeping the network secure, is huge and imperative.

Also, in the post-COVID workplace, firms are looking at tenant experience — the applications that can help out in that regard, making a better effort to engage with tenants and improve the experience for tenants when they’re coming to the office.

Of the things you’re looking at as a tech committee, what are you bringing to the REBNY membership right now that you think is really important, and how is it being received?

Access control is definitely a topic that has come up and we have members that are looking to innovate in this space. Occasionally we do webinars [e.g., “High-Tech Carbon Accounting for Commercial Real Estate”] where we get some subject matter experts together and we market to our members in the broader real estate community. That’s another way that we can convey this information to the community. And access control is definitely something that we’re looking at probably in the next few months here.

In what you bring to the membership, do you get pushback like, “Hey, we’re not interested in this” or “We can’t absorb it,” or are they generally receptive?

The membership is definitely interested in technology. I think the businesses have invested heavily in technology to improve their buildings from all sorts of different perspectives. Technology is something that folks are interested in, and, as a tech committee, we just want to convey what’s going on to the members as best we can.

Is it difficult to bring into the 21st century REBNY members who are basically from conservative organizations that generally make a lot of money regardless of the market? Or has that attitude changed?

That hasn’t been my experience at all. The people that I’m dealing with on the tech committee are tech enthusiasts. They recognize the importance of technology, especially in regard to running their businesses and how that improves everything within operations and the like. I think real estate has traditionally had some more conservative folks out there, but that hasn’t been my experience.

What is the most exciting thing you are seeing in proptech innovation right now?

Going back to the tenant experience and access control, those are the big things that I’m hearing from the members that they’re working on. I think people are just looking for options to build efficiencies into their buildings.

Does the Technology Committee regularly review proptech startups for possible use or adoption by your members?

The PropTech Challenge is the main way that we engage with the startup community. One of the benefits of looking at all these submissions is that you’re getting to see a lot of different technologies. The committee evaluates all these companies and picks the best three in each category, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other companies in there we’re talking with.

What can we look for that’s new or different in the companies that are going to be in this year’s PropTech Challenge?

We’re still in the development phase of this, as it’s the early part of the year. We haven’t made any concrete decisions about how we’re going to run the PropTech Challenge this year. It’s always been a little bit different every year. So I think there’s just more to come on that.

Have you set a date for the event?

We haven’t scheduled anything. We’ve had it at different times in the year. Last year it was in April, but we have done it in the fall as well.

What would you say is going to be the overarching technology focus for the rest of the year for REBNY?

I wouldn’t say that there’s an overarching focus from the organization itself. As far as the committee goes, we’re always looking at technologies. The webinars and the PropTech Challenge are essentially what we concentrate on. 

As I said, I think the big thing with the committee is the opportunity for the members to convene together and discuss technology itself. And I think that’s a benefit that they really appreciate.

Philip Russo can be reached at prusso@commercialobserver.com