1. You have a hugely dynamic profile and background. Could you briefly describe who you are and what has brought you to where you are today?
Alongside investment and entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity have been constant threads throughout my personal and professional life, starting with my studies in music and theatre, followed by professional experiences in the investment, real estate and start-up worlds.
I spent the early part of my career in corporate finance – advising companies, equity fundraising and M&A. More recently I was lucky to have had the opportunity to run a multibillion global restructuring real estate team, where I had hands-on experience in development and asset management and gained a deep feeling for the real estate and infrastructure space. In between, I had my own entrepreneurship journey, firstly in a fintech dot com and then as part of a team building a real estate financing bank. First-hand experiencing that start-up journey has been hugely valuable in working with entrepreneurs and founders.
Throughout all these experiences, what I love the most is working with entrepreneurs and helping build businesses. Innovators and founders are some of the most unique and passionate people, and having an opportunity to support them on their journey is a joy.
Currently, I wear a few hats. As head of early-stage investment for Goldacre Ventures, investing in companies innovating in any aspect of the sustainable built world and leading RElab, a sustainable smart built world ecosystem we have created. In parallel, I act as a senior advisor and business coach to start-ups and corporate innovators, as well as serve as a NED and trustee.
2. Fionnuala, you co-founded RElab, an ecosystem of entrepreneurs, industry leaders, corporates and investors in the smart-built space. What are the defining trends that you are currently seeing within the space?
RElab is an ecosystem born from our belief that collaboration and connection are essential for innovation and change, particularly in the built world space. The aim was to bring together the different actors - the entrepreneurs, industry and thought leaders - and to facilitate meaningful conversations and engagement to refine customer/ market fit, sustain innovation and accelerate scaling.
To refine customer/ market fit, sustain innovation and accelerate over the past few years, we have seen collaboration between start-ups and the industry accelerating. By its very nature, real estate has long product cycles and, with so many components to the industry, it often requires the disruption of many industry subsegments. Hence start-ups innovating in this space face particular challenges. Effective partnerships with industry corporates are proving to be hugely important, with start-ups that access industry knowledge and traction early seeming to show a lasting advantage.
Another trend we are seeing emerging over the past few years is increasing collaboration and communication on innovation within the industry. I am always a fan of what I call open-source thinking, which is that, while you want to focus on building your own business successfully, there is always space for good people and good ideas and shared learning. We certainly see at our events that one of the aspects industry finds most valuable is being able to hear one another's thinking and to share learnings. A great example is construction, particularly in large infrastructure projects.
3. What advice would you give PropTech entrepreneurs seeking to develop start-ups operating within the smart-built environment?
No matter how many start-ups we work with, some common themes always pop up!
· The first point, which seems obvious but often is not focused on in a customer-centric way, is for entrepreneurs to articulate their product so that it can be clearly understood from the (potential) customer perspective. This means sitting in the listener's shoes and ensuring the listener understands the product description, why they need the product and its relevance.
· The second piece is to tease out the customer value proposition properly. We hear the phrase product-market fit used all the time. I sometimes wonder if it would be better to use customer-product fit as we often experience product market discussions becoming quite theoretical and unconnected to the customer. Even with successful pilots, ultimately, to scale revenues, a start-up needs to unpick what leads customers to buy their product, what makes it valuable to the customer and the relationship between customer value and the commercial pricing model. We hear a lot of our corporates say to start-ups when they're pitching, “that's all very interesting, but why should I displace ‘[product| process | existing way of doing things]’ and use you?”. I think being able to answer that question in a very tangible and straightforward way is hugely important.
· The third tip is to get people on board early that understand the industry. Often start-ups will wait too long to bring into a sales team someone who truly understands the audience they’re selling to and their business. These don’t have to be full-time hires initially; they can be advisors, experts or mentors. But you need to have people on board relatively early who can help you unpick your customer's mindset in as much detail as possible. From an investment perspective, we've seen this being a differentiator in how quickly entrepreneurs can turn pilots into contracts, into enterprise sales and start to scale faster.
4. Fionnuala, what long-term impact could the Covid-19 pandemic have on future urban planning?
We know one of the most significant challenges we face as human beings is the impact of climate change and that real estate has the potential to play a hugely significant role in reducing our carbon footprint.
Covid unexpectedly gave us a sneak preview into how extraordinary, and different the world could look if we could significantly reduce the impact of current transport models. We got to see for a brief moment the effect on the world of minimal cars, planes etc.
I hope this subliminal message and memory will encourage urban planners to take a truly visionary approach to urban city planning for the future.
Ideally, we will see planners thinking creatively about how you enable cities so that transport planning, public transport, road planning, provision for charging, etc., allows a much more sustainable way of moving around and living. And one that is inclusive, recognising that different people have different challenges and incorporating provision for everyone.
For example, think about the developments ongoing around the hyperloop. Imagine a world where we could move cargo and humans by hyperloop, what that could do for our skies, our carbon footprint, and air quality, reduced noise pollution and, ultimately, wellbeing.
While these kinds of developments are not going to happen overnight, I am hopeful post covid we will see giant leaps of imagination and change.
5. How essential is data in helping the real estate industry to reach its decarbonisation goals?
The much-repeated phrase " you can’t change what you can’t measure " is so accurate when discussing decarbonisation in real estate and data.
This is why digitisation of the entire real estate chain is a critical first step. Digitisation and the data collection it enables are essential to understand what is meaningful and what is working. And the levers we can pull to make a difference.
The challenge for us in real estate is that much of our physical infrastructure is already built, and digitisation of this is challenging and time-consuming.
What is exciting is that we see innovators thinking creatively about how we might leapfrog incremental digitisation (what we’re doing now) and go to relevant data acquisition differently.
To achieve this, we must ask ourselves: do we need to digitise each piece of equipment, or can we leapfrog by finding relevant information already available through different systems?
The other aspect to flag, which is being actively focused on, is that it is possible to have data overload. Companies and innovators must consider what data is relevant and essential - how to prioritise and where to focus to determine what truly moves the needle.
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