Businesses that grow in times of economic crisis are the exception rather than the rule but for Montreal’s BrainBox AI Inc., the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated an already speedy trajectory as the technology startup pushes this month into its 16th country.
The company, which honed its technology for two years before coming to market in May, 2019, sells autonomous software for intelligent heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems in office towers, hotels, airports and other big buildings. In sum: Amid all the hype about self-driving cars, this is self-driving buildings.
BrainBox promises up to 25-per-cent savings in a building’s total energy costs, a 60-per-cent improvement in occupant comfort and a 20- to 40-per-cent decrease in its carbon footprint. Property proprietors can typically recuperate BrainBox’s installation fee within three months through new energy savings and there are no capital expenditures to pay, only monthly service charges.
“When you’re presenting to building owners, and I’ll tell you I’ve pitched now hundreds of times, the first 20 minutes they don’t believe you. That’s the way every meeting goes,” said BrainBox president Sam Ramadori. “By minute 40, it’s ‘How do you say no?’ ”
Autonomous technology using artificial intelligence has transformed industries such as manufacturing and transportation as robots are increasingly used not only to produce goods but deliver them. Now it’s also altering commercial real estate, one of the biggest pieces of the global energy puzzle. An estimated 20 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions on Earth originate from buildings while half of a building’s emissions come from its heating and cooling system.
BrainBox’s client list underscores the appetite for technological advances that can save money and act on climate change. The privately held company has signed deals to install its temperature-control software in more than 120 buildings around the world covering roughly 46 million square feet of space, according to the latest information on its website.
Interest in the technology has increased in recent months as building owners brace for a potentially tumultuous and uneven economic recovery, Mr. Ramadori said. “It’s almost easier for us to sell [our software] now than when times are good.”
Governments have also identified commercial buildings as a major area of focus in their environmental action plans. Quebec in November announced new measures in a bid to better co-ordinate the supply of natural gas and electricity for heating big buildings, for example.
Rather than work against each other, Quebec’s two main energy providers, Hydro-Québec and Énergir, will work together on a mutually timed delivery of power that will increase the overall use of electricity for heating while tapping natural gas exclusively during peak usage, Hydro-Québec chief executive Sophie Brochu said earlier this month. She called it an “extraordinary” effort to reduce the province’s greenhouse gas emissions at minimal cost.
BrainBox’s biggest customer is Australian investment manager AMP Capital. BrainBox is fitting AMP’s entire real estate portfolio of about 40 office buildings, shopping centres and logistics facilities in Australia and New Zealand. In Canada, the Montreal company is present in Holiday Inn Montreal-Longueuil among other places and has pilot installations with the real estate arms of major pension fund managers such as the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Mr. Ramadori said.
The company’s name, BrainBox AI, aptly describes its offering – a one-cubic-foot smart box that is installed inside a building next to the heating and ventilation system. As the company explains it, the cloud-connected device uses deep learning models to study a building and learn how it operates by tapping into data from its existing systems as well as third party sources such as weather information and occupancy levels. It then identifies every potential improvement opportunity and acts on it with no human intervention.
It takes about two to three months for BrainBox to map a building’s different floors, zones and general energy operations. Its AI learns how each of a building’s zones work with a view to predicting what will happen in each zone several hours in advance. With the data obtained, it then takes over the autonomous controls of all the HVAC system components – the fans, the valves, the boiler in the basement – and adjusts them to the optimal setting based on what it knows is coming.
“Today’s buildings, their [building management systems], their HVAC systems, they don’t even know what’s going to happen in five minutes let alone five hours. They’re driving like a person who has a painted-over windshield,” Mr. Ramadori said, referring to the preprogrammed settings in place in typical towers and malls. “We suddenly give it the visibility of the future at a super, high-level accuracy.”
BrainBox was founded by Jean-Simon Venne, the company’s chief technical officer, and four executives with property operator Realterm, who are the principal shareholders. A group of external Canadian and international investors including Esplanade Ventures and Desjardins Capital bought in during a $12-million funding round last April. Another $8-million funding round, not yet formally announced, closed last week.
The startup currently has about 80 employees, mostly software engineers and other specialized tech workers. “Our mission is solving climate change with AI,” Mr. Ramadori said. “We’re not AI for a financial institution. … We’re AI in a very mission-driven outcome.”
The BrainBox staff view the potential impact of their work on the climate as immediate, unlike other technologies under development. “We’re plugging into buildings ferociously. There’s no limit,” Mr. Ramadori said.
BrainBox isn’t the only company in the space. California-based Verdigris Technologies Inc. is a competitor and industrial conglomerate Honeywell International Inc. said earlier this year it has begun selling cloud-based, machine-learning solutions for HVAC systems to commercial building operators. Germany’s Siemens AG is also touting its tools to reduce buildings’ energy consumption, based on its MindSphere system.
“Our job is to keep innovating,” Mr. Ramadori said. “We know [heightened competition] is coming. That’s the reality of tech.”
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