Our Q&A series is an opportunity for our Head of PropTech, Tabitha Francis, to discuss all things Built Environment, Start-ups, and Career with different founders from across the region. Each week we will ask Built Environment innovators burning questions and quiz them about their products. We hope you find it insightful and enjoy getting to know the founders as much as we have.
Ivory Innovations is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to catalyze innovation in housing affordability. Established in 2017, the organization was created in response to the escalating challenges within the housing industry. Fueled by a commitment to address these issues, Ivory Innovations devotes its time, talent, and resources to champion innovation and provide unwavering support to companies striving to alleviate the housing affordability crisis.
I would love it if we could first of all dive into a bit more about you! What is your background and how did you find yourself in the built environment innovation space?
I started in the housing sector about three and a half years ago working with Ivory Innovations. I come from an innovation background and while I was in business school I began looking at the state of the world and noticed that the two challenges of the coming years seem to be centered around housing and climate. Once I’d begun thinking about those interrelated dual challenges, I asked myself what my role in taking a stab at finding some solutions would be? How can I use my skills, my innovation networks, and whatever else I bring to bear to make those issues more salient, and to find some great organisations that are doing good work.
Through this I ended up interning at a gov tech startup, and I pivoted from there to end up working at Ivory Innovations which has been wonderful and has been a real surprise. We started as an organisation about five or six years ago and have grown immensely since, but I feel like we’re still in our own startup days. It’s been a little bit of a winding journey, but I’m very happy to be here working on housing issues, and very happy to be in the building sector.
How did Ivory Innovations come to be and what was the mission when you started?
Our mission from day one has always been to catalyse innovation in housing affordability, and it hasn’t really shifted. I would say what has evolved are some of our programmes and some of the organisations that we see on a year-to-year basis. From a programming perspective, we’ve always had a real focus on students, as well as entrepreneurs and innovators. When we think about students, we love to think about how we can bring more people into the industry. How do you help some of the generation that has always faced difficult housing challenges, challenges which have compounded more and more in the last couple of years. To be able to see the generation that has faced possibly some of the most structural housing challenges and to be able to work with them is definitely an influential factor. I think that has really become a salient part of our approach over the last few years, and I think it keeps us grounded.
On the entrepreneurial side, we have focused a lot more offsite construction and building methods, and we have a couple of different focus areas beyond that. We think about construction design, finance, and the policy and regulatory reform. Of course, these categories overlap, they’re not mutually exclusive. But I would say construction innovation has really peaked for us over the last couple of years, and supply is the real challenge here. There are several issues with policy and financing, but I would say that housing is a supply challenge at the moment. So what can we do to advance and accelerate some of the innovations in that space?
The macro-climate has shifted dramatically this year and posed unique challenges to the construction and real estate space. Looking into 2024, affordability on the minds of a lot of people, being discussed at a policy level, federal level, local level. Interests rising has thrown some of the assumptions we have made about affordability out the window. How do you feel the industry should respond to this? Do you think this crushes opportunity or opens it up?
I wouldn’t say it opens it up. I remember talking to venture capitalists or innovators at big conferences and people who just weren’t focused on the affordability sector. And when I say affordability from an innovation standpoint, it’s not only capital A affordable. Are you thinking at all about affordability, attainability or accessibility? How do you help people who most need housing get into housing, whether or not its income restricted or subsidised?
We have a 5-million-unit shortage here in this country – I cannot define for you better market opportunity and better opportunity to serve a market than this. This is a fundamental thing that people have a very high willingness to pay.
So we think about affordability and about the opportunity in front of us and affordability is becoming more salient, it’s becoming more talked about. Even if it’s not a core part of your strategy, even if you are not necessarily focused on affordability, it may not be in your mission statement, it should absolutely be part of your strategy. We have a duty to help people in society. Shelter is a good thing for GDP and the economy and all these other reasons. However, at the very least we’re capitalist and it’s a very good market opportunity. It can be hard to thread that needle, but there’s so much need. For those who can think about an aspect of their strategy that relates to this market segment, it just seems like a no brainer!
What are your predictions for the next 18 months?
One of the areas that we have been really thinking about is that intersection of climate and housing. There’s so much money that we see coming from the Department of Energy. What kind of opportunities does the regulatory landscape and political landscape and chunks of federal dollars unlock on a state level? And a local level? And in the private sector? I expect that we will see many innovators really chasing some of the dollars that are getting unlocked over the next 12 to 18 months.
Alongside this, there will most likely be a continued focus on new building methods and materials – things that focus on bonding carbon, whether that’s marketplaces, physical material, or software solutions that are supporting things like offsite construction. Anything that has had a lot of great results from lowering waste and from being able to put new products into action more quickly.
The smartest innovators that we’ve met are a little bit ahead of the curve here. They’ve spent time setting up the infrastructure of the businesses in order to succeed. When we talk about building methods or anything that is software adjacent, it can be really hard to get economies of scale in a fragmented industry. And so that’s the challenge that we see in the built environment. The innovators that we’ve seen who have set up some of that infrastructure to be ready to take advantage of dollars and programmes and the focus that is coming will be exciting to watch.
Another prediction I would make is that they will continue to see a focus on conversions. What is the future of work? What is the future of the office? For example, in Salt Lake, there are a couple of big developments that have launched in downtown and there are a lot of big jobs there too, so what does that reimagining of a core office commercial market downtown look like?
As we think about the capital markets and the people holding debt and equity on those properties, some of that isn’t going to shake out for another three to five years. However, I think that there will be a really interesting set of opportunities for organisations who are ready to help make that transition.
I think there’s so much opportunity in PropTech. How do you help? Have you helped the city deliver on this opportunity? Is it software to help residents better experience a whole new neighbourhood, is it supporting developers who are doing these projects? What does it look like to integrate care and supportive services if you’re doing inclusionary units or units that might support people who are formerly homeless? There is a whole ecosystem there to be unlocked.
LMRE are specialist PropTech recruiters, if you need help growing your business or making any key hires please get in touch via the form below!