NYC’s biggest real estate firms are “paranoid” about cybersecurity and excited by virtual reality: panelists

Industry giants also say they're lukewarm to consumer-facing tech at Columbia forum on entrepreneurship

TRD New York /
Sep.September 30, 2016 12:50 PM

Real estate tech upstarts are focused on better tools for consumers, but New York’s graying veterans of the industry see cybersecurity, virtual reality and smart building technology as the key to maximizing the bottom line, speakers at a panel on entrepreneurship at Columbia University said Thursday.

“Cybersecurity is number one for me,” said Marc Holliday, CEO of SL Green Realty who moderated one of the panels. “Is this a burning issue for your firms,” he asked the other panelists, “or am I just paranoid?”

If he was paranoid, so were they, the other panelists, including Robert Entin, chief information officer at Vornado Realty Trust, assured him.

The Columbia University entrepreneurship event at 237 Park Avenue featured a panel of real estate startups and investors, moderated by Zach Aarons of the real estate tech accelerator MetaProp NYC, and a second panel of industry veterans from some of the city’s biggest real estate companies, moderated by Holliday TRData LogoTINY.

The veterans and upstarts openly acknowledged a difference in philosophy at the panel. The startup panelists were mostly intrigued by consumer-facing platforms and repeatedly expressed eagerness to more industry openness toward innovation.

The real estate veterans, which also included Denis Hickey, the CEO of LendLease, said they were less concerned with changes on the demand side, and more interested in running their existing businesses more efficiently, utilizing smart technology for building management systems, more integrated data and customer relationship management systems, better collaborating tools between developers and architects, and of course, cybersecurity.

“Five years ago, 10 to 15 percent of my efforts were spent on security. Today it’s 35 to 40 percent,” Vornado’s Entin said. Areas of concern include cash transactions and wire-transfer fraud as well as data breaches.

SL Green recently hired a new head of cybersecurity and the company is upgrading its systems. “We’re investing a ton,” Holliday said.

Holliday said smart design can have a high payoff. He pointed to the 43-story office tower at 280 Park Avenue, a collaboration between SL Green and Vornado, where a $150 million investment paid off, he said. The smart technology they implemented did a lot “to drive rents up probably almost 50 percent.”

A final area of interest for Holliday was virtual reality. “Virtual reality, augmented reality – that to me is where it’s really happening,” Holliday said and described a recent meeting where instead of presenting a property with a slideshow, “I asked everyone to put on goggles and they were transported.”

On that, the startup folks agreed. When asked where they saw the industry in 10 years, one startup panelist said no one would have to see a space to buy it, thanks to virtual reality.

Another panelist thought a little bigger. “There’s Mars,” he said.

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