To kick off the new year, we conduct a Q&A with Tzvete Doncheva, who looks after the PR and ecosystem building at Round Hill Ventures, a leading European PropTech venture capital firm which invests in the businesses which reshape the built environment through technology.
We talk to her about her background, promoting greater diversity in property investment, the PropTech ecosystem and whether the built environment will soon become entirely digital.
Tell us about your background. How did you first come to be involved with PropTech?
The career path I took straight after university graduation was media. A TV newsroom is one of the most dynamic, fast-paced work environments there is.
You learn how to work under pressure, meet tight deadlines and adapt quickly – skills applicable to working in both the startup world and venture capital. I got involved with PropTech from the startup side – a fascinating sector to be in as the traditional real estate industry is undergoing a digital transformation.
In between the transition between a PropTech startup to VC, I took up an ecosystem building role at London’s only urban mobility co-creation hub, London Connectory. My task was to help generate awareness within local mobility players through engaging initiatives and events.
Mobility and PropTech share a few common characteristics, where in both technology acts as an enabler to innovation in a traditional industry. The built environment is interlinked – smart cities, smart buildings, govtech. Moving over to PropTech venture capital, my role at Round Hill shares similar characteristics on ecosystem building and helping to connect the dots between the different stakeholders.
As someone working in PropTech and VC investment – which still tend to be very male-dominated environments – have you found any barriers in your way as a result of your gender?
It deeply relates to perception – gender may be a barrier only if we let it be. What surprised me was the low level of support between women in male-dominated environments. The means for a purposeful knowledge exchange are yet to be built between senior women and the ones just starting out.
This is one of the inspirations behind Round Hill Ventures’ new #VCLeadLadies events - an education series where female investors can exchange insights, develop meaningful connections and hear from inspiring women in technology.
Another learning for me was that the occasional ‘unspoken bias’ is subject to change. Work is valued over merit – if you are good at what you do, gender biases become irrelevant.
What could be done to promote greater diversity in PropTech, investment and the property sector more generally?
Technology is reshaping the world we live in – including the way we communicate and share information.
Education is a key in promoting diversity and usually starts at a granular, individual level. The top-down policies promoting diversity will only be successful when the decision-makers understand the scope of the problem, rather than fulfilling metrics.
The enterprise value of diversity is around diversity of thought and approach – especially when identifying solutions today that address the challenges of tomorrow in the built environment. Investing, even though all-female founder teams get less than 1p in every £1, actually doubled as reported in Female Founders Forum latest report.
In venture capital, initiatives such as Round Hill Ventures’ #VCLeadLadies series promote a deeper level or understanding and drive the industry forward.
I was also impressed by Women in PropTech’s last event which featured an all-female panel of industry leaders. It was refreshing to see the audience was very diverse and included male start-up founders, as well as decision-makers within large corporations.
Will the built environment ever be entirely digital? Is this needed to make processes smoother and more efficient?
Real estate-related startups attracted over $16 billion in venture capital over the course of the past year. It is the industry’s historic characteristics and the operational inefficiencies which act as a barrier to innovation. Digitisation provides an array of opportunities to streamline inefficient processes, increase operational speed and profit margins.
We must also note the social impact PropTech has across the value chain. Technology can help solve the wider issues affecting the built world, such as housing affordability or urbanisation.
Modular housing, or high-tech factory prefabricated homes, address the issue of housing affordability, but also speed in which new homes are built. It’s a solution which from one side can help young people to get on the property ladder and from another enable authorities and developers to deliver new homes in a quicker, more efficient manner (cutting development time by 50%).
By using a platform such as Modulous, a client’s housing design brief is met in a matter of minutes, rather than months. The startup uses artificial intelligence technology and generative design to do so. It is later able to deliver the ready house ‘kit of parts’ worldwide through a fully integrated supply chain - all assembled in hours.
Moving to house buying and renting, Wunderflats offers a tech-enabled solution for both asset owners, looking to monetise on underused space and to renters, looking for high-quality short-term accommodation. The housing-as-a-service platform connects the two parties, making short-lets easy and convenient.
If we investigate another aspect of the built environment - property management - digital solutions can be used to tackle inefficiencies, improve tenant engagement, measure a building’s ESG score. By seamlessly connecting landlords or asset owners to contractors, a platform such as Plentific enables the former to deliver a better, quicker service to end users at a more competitive cost, thereby increasing profit margins.
We’ve heard a lot about the PropTech ecosystem – what is meant by this?
Similarly to the two buzzwords it is made up of, it is a term open to interpretation.
The fragmentation of the real estate industry poses concerns for both traditional firms and PropTech start-ups. The knowledge gap impedes the speed and depth of innovation.
Round Hill Ventures’ background, expertise, local knowledge of European markets and access to some of the most innovative PropTech solutions have enabled us to from one side be able to understand the industry pain points and from another to connect the different stakeholders over the past three years. It had been a driver of innovation, but this had been at large unknown in the public.
It is how the idea for our event series ‘PropTech Connect’ was born – as the monthly forum where key players within the European real estate ecosystem can share expertise, knowledge and collectively address challenges faced. Starting with our own network and further expanding as we grow - building and connecting the PropTech community.
How important a role do VCs play when it comes to PropTech and resi investments?
PropTech can deliver instrumental value to a residential investment by improving the planning and decision-making process. A revolutionary company in the field has been Spacemaker – artificial intelligence technology which empowers users to discover new ways to maximise the potential of a building site – including saving up to a year in development time. The solution enables a great level of insight and improves the collaboration in the real estate development.
Naturally, venture capital firms have an overview of the latest market trends - able to spot the scalable solutions which will deliver a high return multiple to investors and solve actual industry problems. VCs are the enabler of innovation – for example we come across many PropTech solutions which are good, but not venture backable. These startups remain within our ecosystem and pipeline - and where fit we will refer them to relevant corporate or institutional parties.