Robots, Colliers, VTS push tech into spotlight at TREF

IMAGE: GUS, an interactive robot using AI technology and presented by RYCOM, takes the stage during the Real Estate Forum in Toronto. (Courtesy RYCOM)

GUS, an interactive robot using AI technology and presented by RYCOM, takes the stage during the Real Estate Forum in Toronto. (Courtesy RYCOM)

If there was one takeaway from a couple of days in Toronto for the Real Estate Forum (TREF) it is that tech has begun its reign in commercial real estate. The two-day conference opened with an interactive robot on stage with the co-chairs, featured a jam-packed proptech Demo Day event hosted by Colliers and Techstars, and a half-dozen presentations exploring the sector.

In addition, leasing and asset management software provider VTS made a well-timed major announcement, that its platform now manages about half the class-A downtown office space in the city. Company CEO Nick Romito was also a panelist at TREF.

As the forum opened a robot named GUS, presented by smart buildings technology provider RYCOM, joined co-chairs Kevan Gorrie of Granite REIT and Avtar Bains of Premise Properties on the stage. The polite, smiling orange bot introduced the conference and responded to questions from the chairs.

Accompanied by companion bot Georgina, they made several appearances during the two-day conference and while the interactions didn’t go off without a few hiccups, they set the stage for what was to come.

Throughout the conference itself, participants were able to connect via forum presenter Informa’s proprietary “Real Connect 2019” app. It gave participants dedicated networking and other resources at their fingertips via Apple and Android mobile devices.

Following are some capsules on a few of the tech highlights during the week.

Colliers and Techstars Demo Day

This invitation-only event was the culmination of the 2019 Colliers and TechStars Proptech Accelerator. The accelerator itself brought together 10 companies working in the real estate technology space for an intensive incubation program.

As part of the two-and-a-half hour program, the participants were able to make presentations about their platforms to many of the industry’s top movers and shakers, including David Bowden, the CEO of Vancouver-based Colliers, and Techstars founder and CEO David Brown. They also announced ongoing partnerships with Colliers to continue their development.

The accelerator was created to help identify technologies which can simplify, streamline and solve a variety of CRE-related challenges. The result were presentations incorporating quant valuation and investing, crowdfunding, asset fractionalization, machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality and blockchain technologies.

“The amount of energy and creativity in the room was awe-inspiring,” said RENX publisher Ann White, one of the invited guests. “It was a stroke of genius. Demo Day brought leading-edge software development in the property sector to the doorstep of the entire Canadian commercial real estate industry.

“The excitement and interest in the room was palpable as the executives and tech experts listened to a series of driven start-up founders making their presentations.”

VTS hits Toronto plateau

The VTS announcement was well-timed, made just prior to the conference kickoff. With the additions of Oxford Properties Group and First Capital Realty, VTS now manages 25 million square feet of class-A office space in the downtown core.

“Toronto is an incredibly important market for us and we are committed to delivering the best leasing and asset management solutions for our Canadian clients,” said Romito in a release.

“We’re very proud to have been selected by these world-class landlords as their technology partner and look forward to working closely with them to produce value for their teams.”

The announcement follows the launch of VTS’ Toronto product development centre in August 2019, the company’s first such centre outside of New York – its base and international HQ.

VTS plans to employ at least 50 people in Toronto by the end of 2020.

VTS entered the Canadian market in 2015. More than 430 million square feet of commercial space across the country is now managed on the platform by major Canadian commercial real estate companies, including Brookfield and Ivanhoé Cambridge.

In May 2019, the company also completed a highly successful $90-million funding round led by Toronto-based Brookfield Ventures (the technology investment arm of Brookfield Asset Management).

It’s an indication of the readily available capital for firms leading the proptech space.

VTS’s platform has more than 35,000 users.

“With a global portfolio of assets spanning four continents, it is crucial we streamline our leasing processes and generate actionable insights from our data to make the best decisions for our customers and our business,” said Oxford president Michael Turner, in the release. 

“VTS has been integral in making that, and more, possible.”

Panels, presentations

IMAGE: Tech-related panels at the Real Estate Forum in Toronto were popular – there was nary an empty seat to be had. (Ann White RENX)

Tech-related panels at the Real Estate Forum in Toronto were popular – there was nary an empty seat to be had. (Ann White RENX)

While including its usual panel discussions about each commercial real estate sector, the Real Estate Forum also gave a huge nod to tech. During a keynote panel on technological transformation, Realcomm co-founder and CEO Jim Young said the foundation is in place for a radical upgrade in capabilities.

“I don’t think it’s a question of technology, I think we have everything we need to transform this industry in the next 24 months,” he said, noting tech is in what he called its fifth wave of development.

“I think the big question is adoption.”

He also addressed the fear of failure – a major barrier in some segments of the industry.

“You cannot succeed in this game without falling on your face a lot. You just have to get used to that.”

Other speakers alluded to the universe of “3,000 companies” competing in the real estate and prop tech spaces, noting there will be winners and losers, consolidation and disruption – even among the disruptors themselves.

Panels focused on the impacts of tech transformation, innovation in the building sector, changing work environments, the emergence of the data centre sector, and building smarter buildings.

Galen Weston, chair of Loblaw owner Galen Weston Ltd., discussed its implications in another keynote speech. He noted retailers have been amassing data about customer habits for many years.

Now, they have the ability to really put that data to work.

“That data has been interesting for the past 20 years, now it has become invaluable,” he said because it offers new insights into behaviour and patterns.

“Amazon has applied for a patent for anticipatory shipping . . . they figure out what people in a particular neighbourhood are likely to want to purchase.

“We’re gonna use AI to pre-ship that product . . . assemble that stuff in your neighbourhood in a local hub.”

It’s just one example of what’s in place, or what’s coming, for the CRE sector and its tenants.



Don is a veteran editor and journalist with three decades of experience in print and online news, including 20 years at the Ottawa Sun. Most recently, he was the Sun’s…

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Don is a veteran editor and journalist with three decades of experience in print and online news, including 20 years at the Ottawa Sun. Most recently, he was the Sun’s…

Read more




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