“Like a kid in a candy store”: JLL’s digital chief on proptech’s potential

Vinay Goel wants to bring a data revolution to CRE

Between virtual reality and 3D-printed buildings, commercial real estate firms are increasingly showing off flashy new instruments they say will upend the industry.

But more than any single gadget, JLL’s Vinay Goel says he wants to bring an information revolution to the real estate world.

“We’re talking about how to build an employee experience where if someone is hot or cold, then instead of filing a ticket and having someone act on it, you have sensors that are empowered to know how to do that themselves,” Goel said. “Data is one important aspect of how to get there, and AI is the means.”

JLL came roaring into the already-crowded proptech space in June when it launched JLL Spark, a $100 million fund to acquire and cultivate promising real estate tech startups. The company followed up a month later by creating the in-house position of chief digital product officer, and hiring Goel to fill it.

During the 11 years Goel spent as an executive at Google, he shaped the development of Google News, Google Finance and Google Earth’s street view imagery.

A month into his tenure at JLL, Goel told The Real Deal he feels “like a kid in a candy store” sifting through ideas in an industry whose technology he estimated “about three-to-five years behind fintech.”

“People used to experience innovation primarily at work, but that changed starting in the 2000s … and now we see most innovation in consumer experiences, like home automation,” Goel said. “So [commercial] enterprises are now playing catch-up, and all these guys are suddenly waking up the fact that tech is the best way to cut costs and compete for talent in a tight labor environment.”

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CBRE took a leap into the tech arms race last January when it acquired Floored, a startup that creates virtual 3D floor plans for brokers and property owners.

And in May, Los Angeles-based Fifth Wall announced it would dedicate $200 million to drive innovation in retail-centered real estate.

But new technology can only go so far if it lacks a deep enough well of historical data on how people and machines behave — especially when it comes to property management, Goel said. And that’s where JLL could flex its strength.

“When you’re talking about developing predictive maintenance for HVAC or elevators or fire alarms, six months of data is just not good enough,” Goel said. “You need six years of data from all different types of buildings … and I can’t imagine a better place to do that than with JLL, where we can draw upon thousands of people who manage physical dimensions of their space.”

Goel’s team will spend most of the rest of this year sifting through the mega-firm’s assets and parsing out which technologies make most sense to pursue, he said. They’ll set their sights on developing specific ventures early next year, potentially leaning on JLL Spark’s crop of smaller firms to bring the ideas to market faster.

The best ideas will be those that can “marry digital space with physical space” the way companies like Uber and AirBnB have, Goel said. And the longtime Google exec said he’s confident JLL can crack the next breakthrough, whether it’s through blockchain data-gathering, AI machine-learning or business-to-business apps.

“One of the reasons Google has become so valuable is because it was able to reach that magical moment when it can tell you what time to leave for the airport, or if a restaurant will be closed by the time you get there,” he said. “We’re in a position where we know a lot about buildings … and my charter is to put a tech wrapper on that knowledge so we can build those magical moments for our customers.”