On a recent Thursday afternoon, Suffolk Construction invited entrepreneurs, investors, partners, and company employees to its Boston headquarters for an event that has been a rarity in 2021: an in-person startup demo showcase.
The $4 billion, privately-held construction company launched its venture capital arm, Suffolk Technologies, in January 2019. The goal: identify promising startups focused on the “built environment” around us. In tandem with that, Suffolk also created the Boost program, a six week mini-accelerator.
But the pandemic forced the first set of startups that participated in the program to pitch their offerings online in 2020. This year’s Boost program plucked six startups from more than 100 applicants. And that group had the opportunity to present to a live audience in an auditorium at Suffolk earlier this month. (See the table at the bottom of this page for brief overviews of each startup.)
Before the demos kicked off, InnoLead sat down with Jit Kee Chin, Suffolk’s Chief Data and Innovation Officer, and Parker Mundt, Suffolk Technologies’ Operating Director, to talk about some of the new technologies they’re looking to invest in; how Suffolk leverages data; and how they hope to tie the startups and their products into Suffolk’s business.
Tell me a little bit about yourselves, your role here, and how you ended up at Suffolk Construction.
Parker Mundt: I started at Suffolk in operations. I came in through our Career Start program right out of college.
Just about a year ago, [in December 2020], Jit Kee and the Suffolk Technologies team reached out and asked me if I’d be interested in joining their team. I was taking what I learned operationally and what I’ve learned in executive leadership roles, and then transitioned that over to our venture capital team. I’ve been at Suffolk Tech now for about a year as the operating director. What that means is a lot of working with our portfolio companies. It’s helping to drive value creation and growth within those companies, helping them scale, and then also scaling those companies internally if we have an application with them…. My role is tying together what we do operationally with what we do on the technologies investment side. The last role I have is running our Boost program, which is why we have folks in today. It’s a six-week mini accelerator program. We had over 100 applications this year.
We have nine partners who join us in the program — either adding investment dollars to the program, or maybe adding advisory roles to some of these companies. We partner with MIT, and we had an “academic day,” where [the startups] got to be with three professors from MIT who explained where the future of construction and real estate is headed. We also held a venture capital day, where we brought in a lot of our friendly venture capital partners across the country.
We really try to work with these companies for six weeks and really flesh out what some of their biggest operational or biggest business problems would be. We tell them that we want to try to help them solve that in six weeks. Each company that comes to the program is paired up with an operational captain and also an operational liaison. So we have some Suffolk leadership from the construction and build side who are partnered with these companies to help them overcome some of their challenges.
Jit Kee Chin: I joined Suffolk about four years ago, first as the Chief Data Officer and then took on the innovation hat a couple of years after that. My background is actually not in construction. I originally trained as a physicist, I got my doctorate from MIT, but then transitioned to management consulting. I was with McKinsey for nearly 10 years, primarily out of the London office before I came back to Boston.
I like to say I’m no stranger to change. I’m no stranger to reinvention. I quite like it. And I think that’s what makes me good for the role.
As we started getting more into data four years ago, in construction, the observation was that a lot of the innovations are happening in the startup ecosystem, right? A lot of venture capital is flowing into it. That’s sort of the genesis of Suffolk Technologies, and how we started down the road investing in tech companies, because we have really deep industry experience and operational experience. A lot of the high quality entrepreneurial and technical talent may not have that familiarity, and the combination of both of those experiences and backgrounds make for a very powerful combination. We started the Suffolk Technologies venture more than two years ago, in January 2019…
I like to say I’m no stranger to change. I’m no stranger to reinvention. I quite like it. And I think that’s what makes me good for the role.
What kind of technologies are you looking into when it comes to things to invest in?
PM: Of the 105 companies that applied this year, I’d say probably 40 percent of them had some kind of ESG [Environmental & Social Governance] or green building aspect to them, which is really exciting for us to see. A lot of robotics companies are coming in. We had one last year in Canvas Robotics. We have another one this year in Rugged Robotics. So we’re starting to see robots augment some of the labor shortages in construction. That’s a really interesting topic for us to be at the forefront of. We also have a lot of marketplaces that come through, [and] there’s a lot of just digitization of otherwise very mundane, pen-and-pencil kind of things, like purchase order tracking things and simply just buying and selling goods. This year we have a steel marketplace that’s coming through; if you want to buy or sell steel, you can now just do that online in a digital format. So a lot of marketplaces, a lot of robotics, a lot of ESG, a lot of artificial intelligence and machine learning.
JKC: Boost is a great vehicle for us every year to get a snapshot of what’s out there. But if I were to go back when we started, there really was this data and AI theme that was quite strong. We invested in two kinds of image recognition-based companies that took what was unstructured information and generated insights and usage from it. Another theme I would say is supply chain. We invested in another company that optimizes buying for certain subcontractor groups, because the technology penetration into the subcontractor chain is probably on average still further behind that of the penetration into general contractors. That’s a new frontier for folks to address. Other than that, I think we’re always on the lookout. We watch the prefabrication, panelization, and modular segments as well. But [those] are slightly different types of companies and not like a tech company per se.
Since you’ve taken the reins here, Jit Kee, has there been any sort of change in strategy with regards to innovation?
JKC: That’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s been a massive swing in strategy. When [former Chief Innovation Officer Chris Mayer] was here, one of the big programs that he led was the CoLabs program, which effectively is a way for us to bring people together in a tech-enabled space to grow pilot solutions and to collaborate together. That piloting process still exists. The CoLab itself has maybe rebranded once or twice, but the core of that process is the same. We’ve added bits to it.
The Boost program that Parker just described is clearly a new program, but this is the second year we’re running it. We’ve added that acceleration component for a lot of the young startups. We obviously have the investment component with Suffolk Technologies, and then we also have standardization. Now, for things that pass through all the different stage-gates, we [focus on], how do we make it just standard operating procedure and how do we make it work day-to-day? Our vision was always thisend-to-end lifecycle management of innovation from ideas to scale, and that fundamentally hasn’t changed. But as Parker mentioned, some themes like ESG came out a lot more strongly now than when Chris was here. Some new programs were put in place where we observe that we have gaps.
PM: If you think about the innovation ecosystem that we have in Suffolk since Jit Kee has been here, I would say that the funnel at the onset of innovation has really widened and grown. A lot of that’s due in part to Suffolk Technologies. We’ve always had the muscle to at least scale and pilot a few tech solutions. Now, with things like Boost, we get to look at 100-plus companies that want to work with us every year. It’s opened up our aperture and then also helped to align incentives, if we do look at taking investment in the companies.
How was the CoLab affected by the onset of the pandemic?
JKC: I don’t think of the CoLab as a space. There is a spatial component to it, which brings things to life, and that we use as a little bit like our operational control tower, to sort of keep an eye on the jobs. Right. But the CoLab for me was always more of a concept. There are the individuals with that skill-set and that background to do the piloting, assessment, and the scouting. There is this concept of bringing people together to actually solve a common problem. There is a concept of leveraging data and technology in new ways to address an imperfect process. Because it’s a concept, I don’t think that it goes away during COVID. The utilization of the space itself was obviously impacted. But the function of it, I think, doesn’t change.
How are you utilizing data for what you do in your day-to-day operations?
JKC: When I came in four years ago to look at the state of data, the standard thing you do is you perform a diagnostic. You see what data exists, what systems, and what quality, and then you take the view of the existing technology stack, the existing ways people use the information, and you form a judgment. There’s a lot of fragmented silos — about 10 to 15 applications that we use at Suffolk today. Historically, all the information is locked up; they don’t talk to each other; they’re not even tagged the right way, so you can’t cross compare. And that’s not unique to Suffolk, I think that’s the state of the industry.
Then I looked at the structure of the industry. We’re a project-based business. We have 100 projects at any given time, all across the country, that are basically their own mini-businesses. They all have their own P&L statements that they have to hold to. They all have their own budget, and they’re geographically quite dispersed.
So when we think about what’s the power of data in this, one power is to bring a level of transparency that this industry has not yet seen before, in near real-time, in a kind of 360, holistic view of the project that is accessible to numerous stakeholders — here in corporate, down on the project site with your owner, with your architect, with your engineer.
What that practically means is that we’ve put in place an infrastructure and architecture that actually gets the information from all of these different systems, harmonizes it, normalizes it, and then serves up business intelligence [in the form of] digital dashboards that are automatically refreshed in near real-time to the different constituents. I think that transparency builds a level of trust between different parties, between us and our clients, our subcontractors, or whoever it is that we need to bring on the same page, so that we all focus on solving challenges when they arise instead of trying to find out what ground truth is.
A lot of what this industry does is backwards reporting — here’s what happened this month, etc. There’s not as much of looking forward. We’re quite heavily invested in efforts right now to predict and forecast different outcomes, using information that we have historically across cost, time, safety, and quality.
The last thing to mention on data is that I think there is a lot more potential for the way we capture and utilize information. Just focusing on capture for now, there are technologies that can passively capture a lot more information than anything someone can punch into a computer. You got sensors coming online that just spit out that information passively. You have cameras that capture unstructured data that can be very meaningful. To give one example, from a Boost cohort this year, one of the companies is a water AI solution, where they effectively have flow meters, either in line or just sensors, on the pipes backed by a very deep AI library of different water usage patterns. The net effect of that is that they can identify pretty small leaks — they can identify when your water utilization is not optimal. The use cases are water damage prevention from leaks during the construction phase; water usage optimization if you leave it in during the operational phase; and just general water usage, which is great from a sustainability perspective.
There are technologies that can passively capture a lot more information than anything someone can punch into a computer.
What are the goals for the Boost Demo Day event?
PM: I think the big goal for these six companies is to get them airtime with a lot of our partners and also with our operational groups. They’ve been working really hard over the last six weeks to accomplish some of their business goals. We want to hear how they fared against those, and what they initially set out to do in week one. Today is kind of a culmination of our six-week program. Some of them are currently fundraising right now, [and] we’re gonna have some investors in the crowd. A couple of them want to scale within Suffolk’s operations. After presenting today to a lot of our operational leaders at Suffolk, they might be able to scale up a little bit quicker. Some of them have not gone to market yet, so they’re looking to us to help them leverage some of our data that we have now aggregated in-house, how can they leverage and utilize some of this stuff at cost, data that we have [on] how to go to market faster in a more effective way. It’s very company specific, but those are a few kinds of ways that we can help out these companies.
JKC: For every finalist, there is a small equity investment component as part of the program. It’s a little bit separate from Suffolk Technology’s overall investment portfolio, because the program then brings together contributions from other partners as well. But the one thing that I want to make sure we care about is how unique this program is. If you look at the partners this year, we have partners that certainly represent venture, but that’s just one category. We have insurance; we’re a very risky industry and a lot of these innovations run into [the question of], who takes on the risk and where does the liability sit? We have real estate developers on site, so the owner’s voice is represented. We are increasingly venturing into hardware with the academic, technology and research angle, in the form of MIT.
When you add all of this together, you start seeing that this is a microcosm of the construction industry’s stakeholders, because so many of the problems that we have to solve actually do touch different stakeholders. The power of the program is marrying them up with our operational folks to help [the startups] go to market, but at the same time getting the input from all these partners excited to work with the cohort to say, “Hey, if you really want to scale, if you really want to be successful, have you thought about all of these other things, and let us help you kind of get through it.”
These are the six startups that demoed their offerings at Suffolk’s December 2021 showcase.
Wint: When it comes to insurance issues, water damage is usually at the top of a construction company’s concerns. Wint provides a solution by using artificial intelligence to detect and prevent water damage and optimize water usage.
SoilConnect: What would construction be without dirt? Soil Connect is a website for construction professionals that lists projects and required soil amounts, connecting those who have soil with those who need it.
Nyfty: Selling a user-friendly, artificially intelligent bot that solves communication issues on construction sites, including daily reporting, emergency messaging, and COVID screening.
Felux: Felux is the digital marketplace and community for the metals industry. Felux allows users to connect, transact, and optimize their business.
Moxion: Moxion is building electric generators that could replace traditional diesel ones. No carbon emissions, no noise, and a fully electric generator capable of powering an entire jobsite (or entertainment production.)
Rugged Robotics: When putting engineering and architecture markings onto a floor, as part of a construction project, humans don’t always do the most precise job. Houston-based Rugged is making robots that can put those markings onto unfinished floors more accurately and efficiently.