Ottawa-Gatineau startups building momentum in proptech


Jamie Blades was raised in real estate. The Ottawa entrepreneur’s family flipped some 15 houses over the course of his youth, giving him a precocious familiarity with mortgages, home insurance, contractors and, of course, buying and selling property.

It comes as no surprise, then, that he’s worked as a mortgage broker for the past 15 years since graduating from university. Along the way, Blades picked up an affinity for building websites and realized that the old ways of doing things in real estate were quickly becoming outdated.

“I started to see some inefficiencies in the space and thought that there could be a better platform for consumers and the industry alike to connect,” he tells Techopia.

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Today, Blades is the CEO of Homicity, a marketplace for consumers to search for and filter through home listings, rental properties, insurance quotes, home service providers and even mortgage rates from 50 lenders across Canada.

Homicity is not alone in Ottawa-Gatineau’s emerging proptech space, a sector that’s unveiling opportunities to change the way we buy, sell and live in our homes.

Investors are clamouring to proptech – a broad category that covers technology related to our home lives and real estate services – according analyst firm CB Insights, which projected the sector would add US$5.2 billion to global investment activity in 2018, up from US$3.4 billion the year before.

While a one-stop shop for housing searches has long been the holy grail for the residential real estate market, Blades says Homicity stands out from the crowd thanks to the speed of its searches and real-time filtering functions.

At its heart, Homicity is meant to help buyers find the perfect home that’s right for them. While Blades says the goal is to put consumers “in the driver’s seat,” Homicity is also looking to add the perfect co-pilot to the housing search: artificial intelligence.

Thanks to a grant from IRAP, the 15-person startup has been building an AI-powered property recommendation tool. The AI would learn what’s important to a prospective buyer – synthesized into what Blades calls a “livability score” – from questions as well as the user’s searches. For example, if the tool noticed the user was looking for three-bedroom bungalows near schools and along transit routes, it might suggest a nearby property that nearly fits the search’s parameters but is slightly outside the defined area.

If this AI sounds like it’s doing a real estate agent’s job, that’s because it is. Blades sees a change on the horizon, with agents taking their hands off the wheel in housing searches and shifting to the backseat, offering tips in negotiations and guiding buyers through the complexity of buying a home.

“Real estate transactions can be confusing and they can cost you money in the long run, if not done properly. So  a real estate agent can help guide your offer, whether that be on the purchase or sale side.”

Home is where the Wi-Fi connects automatically

On the other side of the Ottawa River, Gatineau’s 1VALET is using proptech to more closely connect residents to their buildings. The firm, founded by Devcore Group boss Jean-Pierre Poulin, raised $5 million in funding a few months ago, mostly from well-heeled angels in the National Capital Region.

The firm’s solution looks to automate aspects of daily life in a condo or apartment building. For example, just by having your phone in your pocket as you walk into the complex, the smart building tech could unlock the door for you, call the elevator and automatically send you to your floor – just as your thermostat kicks on and warms to room temperature in anticipation of your arrival.

That’s just the tip of 1VALET’s full-suite solution, says Erin Fenn, the firm’s chief operating officer. The mobile app includes a message board where residents can post about parties or yoga classes as well as a marketplace function with local service providers registered to make house calls for hair cuts or massages, as a couple of examples.

Launched in mid-2017, 1VALET has been piloting its features with Devcore’s buildings and has gotten into several projects in the Greater Toronto Area. Fenn says the app has already proved a value-add for property managers hoping to entice long-term renters to extend their leases.

“People are more and more busy now. They need their homes to be working for them, whether they’re there or not,” she says. “So this is a huge selling feature. It’s a massive upsell.”

“People are more and more busy now. They need their homes to be working for them, whether they’re there or not.”

Cleantech in old buildings

While 1VALET is making its play on the cutting edge of real estate, Ottawa’s Ecovena is finding its niche in the vast supply of old buildings running on electrical heating.

The five-person startup – a member of Invest Ottawa’s accelerator program, alongside Homicity – launched in 2011 as a chance for property managers to cut down on expensive heating bills.

One of the main problems with the electrical heating systems common to buildings from the 1960s to 1980s is a lack of precise control over the temperature in individual units. This leads to a common symptom of wasted energy, one Ecovena illustrates prominently on its homepage: tenants with windows open in the dead of winter just to keep their units at a liveable temperature.

The firm builds and manufactures devices that can be installed in each unit of a building to not only regulate the heating demands of individual tenants, but also give the manager the ability to centrally track energy usage from the cloud. 

“It’s kind of win-win-win in a way because it saves energy, reduces greenhouse gases, and it does make the buildings more profitable,” says Ecovena founder Trevor Boicey.

The bootstrapped firm has been profitable for the past few years, Boicey tells Techopia, and has its devices in buildings with most of Ottawa’s major property managers such as Primecorp, District Realty and CLV Group.

Ecovena prepares business cases for each prospective client, highlighting how its tech can pay for itself in a number of years. Boicey says the firm has been able to make good use of rebate programs to sweeten the deal for building owners.

“There’s always good motivation when goals align that are both economical and ecological,” he says.

While the retrofit play might not be as sexy as other areas of proptech, Boicey says there’s a definite market demand to reduce energy waste. Newer buildings will likely have more energy-efficient solutions built in, but he says the long-term play to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from existing buildings is more rewarding.

“We’d rather keep them standing than have them mowed down and have all the energy and carbon footprint of a brand new building just because the original was a bit expensive to maintain. So I think we’re fighting the good fight here.” 

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