Founders 10x10 interview with Urbaneer Ceo/founder, Bruce Thompson on the technology changing how we
Small spaces are all the rage in housing and living trends. Brands like DWELL have emerged and have created a venue to advocate a lifestyle around small space living and modern aesthetic design, and they have pushed it into the main stream. Dozens of modular construction and building companies have sprouted from this movement as a result which has been fueled in part by the global phenomenon that is AirBnB, where homeowners and developers are maximizing the use of ADU ( auxiliary dwelling unit), aka in California known as the “granny flat”—my parents would take offense to this generational descriptor for the 1 bedroom dwelling unit that many developers are adding to new homes to offer the homeowners another source of income.
Impala Ventures has spent a considerable amount of time looking at investments in the broader built environment space across the entire life cycle of an asset, from the design phase, through development and into operations and “space as a service.” Our colleagues in the multi-family space at
outlier Realty Capital, a Washington, DC based real estate investment and development firm with a core focus on opportunistic and value add projects and a growing focus on “co-living” adaptive developments that are delivering on a new way of living for the Millennial generation. But while co-living is the latest in a an ever evolving trend towards “shared” space, cars, and other assets—real estate continues to find ways to make space more adaptive, flexible and multi-use.
“The needs of people and communities has changed tremendously, from high cost of living for Millennial's, to an aging baby boomer population seeking new living options, and the built environment has been slow to respond to these changes. We are encouraged to see firms such as URBANEER beginning to innovate and create technology, materials, and spaces that are responsive to those evolving needs”—Peter Stuart, Chief Investment Officer, outlier Realty Capital
This means "future proofing" space so that an investor can monetize an asset through multiple types of use—today a building is built for Millennial co-living and when that lease expires in 5-10 years, the asset can be “re-programmed” for senior living or child care. Neighborhoods evolve and so do the demographics that supply the demand for certain types of real estate.
The American Institute of Architects has focused their annual Latrobe awards to recognize work specifically in areas of adaptive use and design. AIA notes that the award’s mission is to address global changes in the use of buildings:
Future-use architecture is based on the notion that the realities of population growth and climate change—no matter how much they are debated—require that building usage must be more flexible than fixed going forward.
Much of the research validates this movement to space that is able to morph into a new use case, without considerable demolition and reconstruction and without intensive CAPEX investment that all equates to time and lost NOI. Moveable walls, fixtures that can be “de-constructed” with ease and the ability to reuse fixed assets in a “Lego” type system that allows for space to be modular, sustainable and adaptive, allowing owners and investors to have numerous use cases that are backed by economic trends in the region.
As we have seen with the small house movement, space in homes and apartments is getting smaller—this is still very much a US trend as space in European and Asian cities has always been more compact. In order to make a 500 Sft flat live like a 1,000 Sft space, architects and designers have been inspired by space utilization designs that are common in the systems furniture (think Herman Miller) and modular construction world. Markets like Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is the epicenter of the commercial furniture industry has spawned a new generation of startups whose vision is to make space more adaptive and livable.
A company that is leveraging these strategies into their technology is URBANEER , led by founder/CEO Bruce Thompson. Bruce is a career technology executive having been part of the team that built Object Video based in Washington, DC which was led by Raul Fernandez. Bruce moved back to his childhood hometown in Grand Rapids with a vision to bring technology into the built space by taking inspiration from the industry leaders that built Grand Rapids—companies like Herman Miller, Knoll and Steelcase who have been making commercial spaces more efficient for the past half-century.
Grand Rapids could be given the moniker as the Silicon Valley for the other “SpaceTech”—not the one for the rocket fueled startups like SpaceX but rather for embedding technology into the literal fabric of built space—the kitchens, floors and moveable walls that URBANEER's teams are designing to make built space more adaptive. Numerous Venture Capital groups like Wakestream Ventures, an investor in URBANEER have this as their guiding investment thesis to leverage the regions intellectual property assets into new businesses.
I sat down with Bruce recently when he was in Newport Beach on a recent investor road show and we discussed the trends in space design and livability and how Urbaneer is challenging the status quo.
Tell me the genesis story of your company? What was your initial motivation to pursue your vision?
The seeds for URBANEER were planted in 1996 when I was working as part of the Internet launch team for MCI Telecommunications which at the time managed over 60% of the Internet backbone. Bruce worked along-side a world-class engineering team led by Vint Cert, co-creator of the Internet Protocol (IP). Vint had a mantra – IP on Everything – which articulated his vision that ultimately everything would be connected to the Internet.
As a result, Bruce started thinking about how our living spaces would be impacted by digitization of our daily lives and began to research other points in history when innovation had changed physical space. He soon learned that the most recent shift was a 100 years ago when the introduction of telephony, electricity, broadcast communications and automobile transportation networks were introduced. As a result, homes were re-imagined taking advantage of the changes that these technologies introduced. Today, we are entering a similar era of innovation that has the potential to radically transform how and where we live.
Fast forward 20 years, URBANEER was launched to increase the productivity of spaces where we live, work, heal and play through flexibility and embedded intelligence. The initial market focus has been living spaces however prototyping and pilot projects have been completed in work space and primary care environments.
What person in your academic or professional career influenced you…
Stewart Brand and Vint Cerf both had a major impact on my thinking. I have never met Stewart but have spoken and communicated with him. As the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, the first commercial electronic bulletin board and author of How Buildings Learn, his vision and passions had a major influence on my early thinking about how the world was changing. Vint as referenced above also shaped my thinking but more fundamentally, he responded to an email in the mid-1990’s that I sent from Seoul, Korea that landed my job at MCI and opened the door to my future.
Leading a company requires vision, how do you motivate your team to keep them focused?
To be totally transparent, I couldn’t lead URBANEER without the guidance and help of our President, Lydia Hatton. I struggled for several years to translate my vision into a solid business model that we could execute against. Lydia has done an amazing job as she has the ability to be both strategic and tactical in the same conversation which is invaluable to the visionary founder that I am.
I have been able to add additional talent over the past year to round out the team and collectively they actually help keep me focused which is key.
Share with us some your most critical experiences starting out, raising capital, and recruiting for your venture?
I was fortunate early on to have a partner, Rockford Construction, that provided a platform to prototype and pilot early product concepts. Innovation in the built environment is really hard and unless you have a sandbox to ideate, it is almost impossible. Finding a partner was critical to getting launched. The big moment occurred however was when I realized that unlike the digital world I had come from, the physical world required ripping things out that didn’t work instead of updating code and it is often much more expensive. We self-funded the first few years with myself and my partner both contributing capital which I think was important as we weren’t venture backable at the time. We need to get product into the marketplace to test our ideas before seeking capital last year.
During this same time-period, my wife Brenda and I decided to build the first URBANEER designed home to really put our ideas to the test. This was probably the single most impactful thing we could have done and as a designer, Brenda inspired us to put in our movable wall system which transformed the living space. Today the home serves as a living-lab and provides a showcase of our concepts and we continue to learn by living in the space.
The team really came together in the past 12 months starting with Lydia coming on board. It took 3 tries to get the right dynamic and skill set and I feel now that we can really scale based on the team composition.
What are some of the technology advances and changes you envision in the next 5,10 and 20 years in your space?
I think smart materials and AI will have a huge impact on how we design, construct and utilize space. I believe that we will have truly personalized spaces that learn as we occupy them and will provide opportunities for health and happiness that we can’t even imagine today.
What are the characteristics you look for in talent that you recruit into your company?
We look for people that share our passion for helping to change the world and aren’t afraid of not having all the answers. We are figuring out a lot as we go and attitude is everything.
What are your most rewarding moments as a founder?
Seeing others join the team and create their lane where they can have an impact is very rewarding. Also, seeing the vision come into play and clients appreciate how hard we have worked to bring our ideas to market is awesome.
What causes you the most stress and how do you manage these episodes?
I am not a detailed person yet sometimes as the CEO you have to get into the weeds. It is hard for me but having a strong team helps. Also the stress of balancing fund-raising while continuing to build the team, launch product and manage all the stakeholder interests is a challenge. Working in an environment of other entrepreneurs as I do at Start Garden in Grand Rapids has been a huge help.
What big things are in store next for you and the company?
URBANEER has been working the past 4 years to prototype and pilot innovation focused on the physical aspects of higher density living spaces. With over 20 projects completed, we have demonstrated that smaller spaces outfitted with URBANEER furnishings live larger for the occupant while providing an economic value proposition for the developer and/or builder.
Expanding beyond our region is one of the next big things for us. We also believe that the next phase of our growth is targets a seamless physical/digital experience that is best characterized as a smart living platform. URBANEER is in a unique position given our last 10 feet access into a living space. This provides an opportunity to integrate IoT capabilities into a physical build-out thus solving several key issues:
Multiple IoT interfaces
Reduction in the level of effort by smart devices to learn a floorplan
Convergence of data to add value to IoT device experience
Physical integration into a space