One of the most influential people on the proptech scene today has yet to launch a start-up, raise funds from venture capitalists or disrupt a sector of the property industry.
Despite this, Gary Chimwa courts interest from a wide range of proptech and digital influencers including execs from Rightmove, PwC, Mishcon de Reya, Airbnb, HM Land Registry and US investment giant Fifth Wall.
The reason why such heavyweights beat a path to his door is that Chimwa runs the world’s best-known proptech conference and exhibition which last month was visited by 1,800 delegates from around the world who came to listen to both commercial and residential proptech presentations.
The show is five years old but it’s only been 18 months since Chimwa gave up his day job to run Future: Proptech full-time.
His brainchild started out as a side project, he says, but has morphed somewhat unexpectedly into a giant.
“Back in early 2015 I was working in the events industry and began researching tech and how it was disrupting different sectors of the UK economy, during which I discovered the emerging proptech market,” he says.
“I was looking at fintech and the sharing economy and I notice that the big trend was around how tech was being used in property, then WeWork came to the UK and made a big splash.
“So that’s how I got interested in how the property industry is changing.”
His inaugural event was attended by just 60 people, and was essentiall an after-work drinks networking event.
But the next year it swelled to 100 people and then in 2017 Chimwa decided to launch a full-blown conference, and persuaded then Housing Minister Brandon Lewis to speak, to which 250 people turned up.
Dealmakerz visited this year’s Future: Proptech show and the most obvious change from previous ones was how commercial proptech is clearly overtaking its residential cousin.
The commercial seminars were more numerous and better attended than their residential counterparts.
“Commercial is now quite dominant at the show but it used to be the other way around,” says Chimwa.
“But I think although residential started off strongly, the commercial property sector is using technology more; it’s easier for commercial property markets to adopt tech because it’s a B2B environment, whereas residential tends to be more consumer facing and therefore faces more challenges and is more expensive to scale.”
Chimwa also admits that proptech is still at a relatively early stage of development and is ‘going through puberty’, he rather colourfully describes it.
“People are using proptech, companies are adopting it and the first wave of its impact in the wider property industry is taking place, helped by the £9 billion invested globally so far.
“It’s even seeping into construction to a certain extent as well as residential and commercial.”
Proptech is also becoming more corporate. Two key blue-chips were at the show with stands; PwC and CBRE, companies who are gaining proptech capability fast.
They often have tens and even hundreds of thousands of employees and dozens of offices around the world all of which benefit from facilities management-based and other proptech.
Also, their clients are increasingly asking about proptech and consultancies like PwC and CBRE need to be on the ball, which has led them to begin developing their own proptech.
“They need to help their clients overcome their challenges – that’s the value they bring,” says Chimwa.
If there was one elephant in the room at Future: Proptech then it was Brexit and the potential recession a no-deal or botched exit from the EU could bring.
Like the many younger workers who write the code that underpins proptech, the sector has yet to face a serious economic downturn.
Most of the investment and its development has taken place post the financial crisis, and the investment funds needed to get many start-ups off the ground has, until relatively recently, been eagerly pouring in.
“A recession would be a double-edged sword,” says Chimwa. “On the one hand it would be a chance for proptech to prove that it can help businesses drive efficiencies and take up the slack when staff cuts are implemented.
“On the other hand, proptech still needs significant investment and that could reduce during a recession. It’s a big unknown at the moment.”
To try and allay these potential challenges, Chimwa has had the nous to set up an advisory board to steer the show.
This includes Susan Freeman from Mishcon de Reya; Taylor Westcott from Concrete VC, Michela Hancock from build-to-rent giant Greystar; Melanie Leech from the BPF, Killian Hurley from developer Mount Anvil and Guy Grainger from JLL.
“This really made a big difference to the shaping of the event including what companies were interested in seeing and the challenges they are facing day to day, and that dictated how we ran the show,” says Chimwa.
“We also spun our Innovation Council out of the advisory board to help people share their proptech solution, challenges and ideas.”
The location of Future: Proptech is important: London. Arguably the epicentre of the European tech scene, and a leading force in global proptech, the UK is far and away the biggest incubator of start-ups.
According to proptech platform Unissu, the UK has the largest number at 770 which is several hundred ahead of its nearest rival, France.
“I guess the rest of Europe jumped on the proptech development curve around 3-4 years ago, so they are playing catch-up a little.
“There are quite a lot of factors driving this,” says Chimwa. “Because we’ve got a large overall tech industry there is a more supportive environment here in the UK, and more VCs around to fund them.
“That said, there are some emerging markets out there in Europe. This includes Norway which is very innovative despite their tiny population, and Holland too.
“A lot of work needs to be done to help the UK maintain its lead and that includes getting the government involved more; the Geovation initiative and the Land Registry’s Digital Street programme are great examples, and the Ministry of Housing has a digital team now. But more needs to be done.”
Future: Proptech is also doing its bit. Chimwa is about to launch his Innovation Council programme for this year, and in May 2020 is running the show over two days instead of one. It is also moving from the Business Design Centre in Islington to an “exciting new and larger venue also in London, to be announced shortly”.