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Smart Buildings, Smarter Startups: Navigating Opportunities and Challenges in the Built Environment Sector

The built environment sector is undergoing a transformative phase, driven by technological advancements and a growing emphasis on sustainability and occupant wellness. Besides the global agenda to deliver a zero-emission, efficient and resilient buildings and construction sector, there is also a local agenda to help players in the industry reduce the cost of their buildings beyond the construction phase, given that as much as 80% of a building’s life cycle cost comes from operation and maintenance expenses.

On November 8, 2023, Kajima and the Singapore Management University’s Institute of Innovation & Entrepreneurship hosted a sharing session as part of the Business Innovations Generator (BIG) Incubation Program. Titled Smart Buildings, Smarter Startups, the event shed light on the opportunities and pitfalls founders might encounter in the built environment landscape.

The panel featured a diverse panel which included Leung Pui Yan, Partner of Vertex Ventures Southeast Asia & India, Kam Tin Seong, Associate Professor from the Singapore Management University, Jonathan Eng, Co-founder and CEO of Hephaestus Technologies, Natalia Mykaylova, Co-founder and CEO of WeavAir, and was moderated by Luke Wu, Head of Innovation at Kajima Development.

What is a Smart Building?

A smart building is characterised as a physical bricks and mortar integrated with different devices to collect data, building insights and applications on top of it. Smart buildings are not a new thing but because of the evolution of technology, combining various network technologies with the building infrastructure becomes easier, giving us better control of our surrounding environment.

While smart buildings integrate technology to enhance productivity, facilities management, and energy efficiency, Luke emphasised that beyond the hardware, occupant wellness also plays a huge part of the built environment narrative and how people interact. People desire physical interactions after the COVID-19 pandemic; hence the offline experience is here to stay.

Therefore, a smart building also considers the human element and how it serves its occupants, which is important to creating a comfortable space and improving the experience for its occupants.

Occupant Wellness Backed by Data Analysis as the Future Building Trend

On the topic of occupant wellness, the industry is seeing heightened awareness that is influencing technology development. Natalia noted that the shift to digitalisation is accelerated by impact from the pandemic, and the hybrid experience, blending physical and digital interactions, has become crucial in enhancing the built environment. People now have better realisation about their environment and surroundings, with an increased understanding on how that affects their mindsets and productivity.

Another trend to note in Southeast Asia is rapid urbanisation, with the urbanisation rate expected to hit 65% by 2050. This drives the need for higher density of buildings for a sustainable development.

Digitalisation presented multi-dimensional opportunities; some examples highlighted by Pui Yan was the visualisation of buildings using digital twin modelling before construction to reduce waste, building on digital trust to workflows for safety consideration, and many more.

Support for Student Founders and Need for Corporate Innovation

Students often face the challenge of accessing the latest state-of-the-art technology due to investment constrains from universities. It is thus important for educational institutions to work closely with industrial players to expose students to interesting technologies, stressed Dr Kam.

Jonathan agrees, adding that it's important for students to look for individuals who would provide mentorship and stay with the startup through thick and thin, even when the market is down and revenue is low. He also notes that one of the obstacles he has working with corporates is that a lot of time was spent on discussion and exploration. Those who decide not to move forward are late adopters and would like to see successful use cases in the market before implementing the solution. Corporates need to be early adopters and be open to work with startups, and expectations should be aligned from the get-go.

Leverage on Coursework and Learn to Build Strategic Partnerships

Aspiring student founders should make use of their coursework for proof-of-concept ideas to attract potential investors, said Dr Kam. This would be a better way to enter the market, with partially ready-to-go solutions and something to show. He also advises students to look for strategic collaborators, acknowledging the challenges that comes with navigating the industry alone.

Natalia included her perspective that alignment of vision is of utmost importance when looking for a partner. Otherwise, it is a waste of time if the partnership does not end up translate into scalable business solutions and converting customers.

Key Takeaways for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Head the mantra that if there presents an idea with a unique advantage, pursue it without the fear of failure. Jonathan shared his experience of how his startup has been around since 2021 but what they are currently working on only started in 2023 as they were spending the last couple of years doing a lot of trial and error. The initial idea has never changed in its essence but the way it’s being presented and the values that it provides for their customers has changed.

When starting a business, entrepreneurs should make sure that they are clear on what their values are because that is what’s going to help them stand apart from others. And if they are doing something new or innovative, be prepared to spend a lot of time educating customers. There will be a lot of pushback and resistance, not because people don’t want to adopt the idea, but sometimes they are resistant to change.

The entrepreneurial journey is inherently unpredictable, but taking bold steps often involves encountering obstacles and setbacks.

To support this point, Pui Yan encouraged entrepreneurs to stay as an eternal optimist. Ask enough questions of “What if I’m wrong?” because it’s important for risk management, but also ask “What if I’m right?” It will help one see the possibilities and to ensure that one stays on track when things do go wrong.

The BIG Incubation Program is a springboard to making an impact in the smart buildings sector. The 4-month incubation programme for entrepreneurs and startups is designed to help early-stage founders validate their product and get ready for seed investment. Selected teams receive support including grant opportunities, world-class mentors and advisors, masterclasses, perks as well as a workspace in the heart of downtown Singapore.

The newly unveiled Kajima BIG Startup Award is a $15,000 prize and an opportunity to make a substantial impact in the smart building space. Find out more about the programme here.


This article was written by Joey Jiahui Ong, Innovation Manager at Kajima Development.


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