Infogrid is protecting the planet by making buildings smarter
The company’s founder, William Cowell de Gruchy, talks us through how he has built the business and kept it in private hands, and explains what it is that truly makes him tick.
Before founding Infogrid, William Cowell de Gruchy spent five years in the British Army as a tank commander. One of the most frustrating tasks he was required to do on the regular rota was an armoury check, which involved confirming that nobody had taken or moved any of the garrison’s guns (‘and you’ve got a lot of guns in the army’) and ticking each weapon’s serial number off a sheet. ‘It took someone hours every day,’ William recalls. ‘That was one instance when I felt that sensors could revolutionise the process and save huge amounts of time and therefore costs.’
He didn’t immediately put this frustration to good use, but he would in time. After the army, he worked in commercial due diligence as a consultant on behalf of private equity companies that were looking to either acquire or make sizeable investments in businesses. ‘My job was to meet companies on a regular basis and try to uncover problems,’ he says. ‘And when you look for problems, you tend to find them.’ One recurring issue he encountered was the lack of good-quality data about companies’ daily operations with regard to their real estate. For the companies, this represented various risks, from regulatory compliance to the health and safety of their buildings.
‘I was astounded,’ William says today, ‘because to me, it felt like the technology to solve this problem existed.’ This was in 2017, so it was already the era of powerful cloud computing, miniature sensor devices and ever-present cellular connectivity, which all meant that you could inexpensively collect this data. The question then became: Why was nobody doing this? ‘The real competition was inertia,’ he says. ‘Real estate is a very slow-moving industry. So, I just felt like there had to be a way to solve this problem in a simple, low-cost and scalable fashion. And that is the kernel of what became Infogrid.’
William set up Infogrid in 2018 as a company that harnesses the potential of connected sensors and devices (the bedrock of the so-called Internet of Things) and uses them to retrofit existing buildings to make them smarter. The company’s offer to clients (generally large real estate managers and owners) is built on three pillars.
First is solving some form of regulation or compliance need, such as health and safety. William points to the example of Legionella, an airborne bacterium that causes the pneumonia-like illness known as Legionnaires’ disease. Regulations require most building managers to ensure that the water in their pipes has reached a certain temperature and been flushed through every month. In the absence of reliable data, most companies physically send a person round the building each month to run all the taps, irrespective of how much each tap has been used. With Infogrid, sensors capture and relay this data, meaning that a building manager can use less labour and still comply with regulations.
This represents the second pillar of value: cost reduction. Take the Legionella example again. ‘We did this with a banking client recently across 564 sites,’ says William. ‘That equated to about USD2.1m a year of labour savings against a USD700,000 spend on the system. On top of that, they saved 8.1m litres of water by not running it down the drain, and 800 tonnes of carbon, because that was hot water heated by natural gas.’ The other way that Infogrid can reduce costs is by helping to prevent a catastrophic loss, detecting a leak before it affects a computer server or monitoring humidity and suggesting preventive maintenance at the right time.
The third and final pillar of Infogrid’s offer is value creation. Across key markets such as London and New York, buildings with higher ESG ratings are on average able to attract higher yields. ‘You can rent them for more, you’ll have lower turnover and you’ll fill any vacant properties faster,’ William explains. Infogrid’s technology can help a building manager receive higher ratings for things like water health and air quality, and can therefore lead to a significant uplift in asset value. Such ratings also help unlock green finance.
“I just felt like there had to be a way to solve this problem in a simple, low-cost and scalable fashion.”
To do this at scale and supercharge the company’s growth, Infogrid has built artificial intelligence into its product. This is the key to its scalability. But it wasn’t something William and his team could do immediately, because ‘you need data, a lot of data.’ Today, Infogrid is gathering hundreds of millions of data points every day from smart buildings around the world. ‘Ultimately, we can say to you, “Your building is in the bottom decile for your portfolio, the bottom 20% for New York and the bottom 15% for the world,”’ he explains. ‘“And if you take these steps, you can make the fifth decile within six months and the top decile within a year.”’ In the coming years, AI is one area that William is keen to invest more heavily in to grow the company further.
There are more exciting opportunities to come for Infogrid in the future. William says he thinks the company will go public at some point, but for now he’s enjoying the agility and the ability to take risks that remaining private affords him. A good example of this was the early stage of the pandemic, when the need for smart buildings really came to the fore. ‘Many people couldn’t go to buildings, but they still needed to monitor them,’ he explains. ‘So, at that time, we didn’t stop hiring; we doubled down. We decided to shorten our runway in terms of how much cash we had left, so that we could really go out and serve this need, when everybody else was running away from it.’
“You can move fast and that’s really important when you’re disrupting and building new markets.”
In December 2020, the company raised USD15.5m in Series A funding, led by venture-capital firm Northzone, which was aimed at accelerating expansion, finding talent, and growing Infogrid’s presence in the US. Although he admits he has never run a public company, William points to this as one of the biggest advantages of remaining in private hands: ‘You can move fast and that’s really important when you’re disrupting and building new markets, as we are.’
Rather than growth for growth’s sake, however, what truly drives the former tank commander and the wider Infogrid team is the environmental impact that the business is having and can continue to have at scale. Of course, they want to help their clients reduce costs and earn more from their real estate portfolios, but ‘the real motivation for me and the company is that you’re going to save a lot of carbon while you do it; you’re going to make your building very healthy,’ William says. ‘That’s my personal motivator – the preservation of the natural world. That’s what makes me tick.’