A fast-growing Montreal startup hoping to bring the “sharing economy” to the office market has raised $60-million in a financing led by the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek and several U.S. venture capital firms.
Breather Products Inc., which previously raised about $90-million largely from U.S. venture capital firms including Menlo Ventures, RRE Ventures and Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures, said the new funds will allow it to increase the density of office spaces it leases from commercial landlords in 10 metropolitan markets in North America and Britain. Breather in turn furnishes and rents out the spaces for variable terms ranging from hours to months through its digital platform to organizations looking for temporary extra space. Roughly 40 per cent of the company’s 500 spaces are in New York, with its second-largest concentration in San Francisco.
“It’s evident the market appetite for ‘flexible real estate’ is very large,” said co-founder and chief executive Julien Smith. He expects that demand to continue and said one of Breather’s long-term goals is to have spaces in “every commercial building in New York that is not a single tenant building.” The company, which also operates in Toronto and London, hopes to expand to major international cities in continental Europe and Asia as well.
Breather is one of several well-financed startups looking to use technology to transform the commercial real estate market. The most prominent player is New York-based WeWork, which has raised billions of dollars and claims to generate in excess of US$1-billion in annual revenue offering “co-working spaces” whereby numerous firms or individuals rent out rooms in snazzy shared office spaces with central concierge, food and drink services and common areas. Belgium’s IWG PLC is a global, publicly traded provider of rental meeting rooms, while upstart Liquidspace operates more like Airbnb, enabling office tenants to let out unused spaces to workers who would otherwise work remotely.
Breather, which has about 250 employees and is more than doubling in size every year (Mr. Smith declined to disclose financial figures), eschewed the co-working model of WeWork and others, offering individual private units to one corporate user at a time. “This is [the customer’s] space, the way commercial real estate has always been provided, but on a flexible basis,” Mr. Smith said.
He has said Breather can break even at occupancy rates well below 50 per cent by offering a range of spaces for a variety of uses – typically smaller spaces than standard corporate offices that are harder for landlords to lease, and then gussied up with modern furniture and designs overseen by co-founder Caterina Rizzi, a professional designer. Customers book rooms digitally and access the electronically locked spaces with unique access codes that are sent when their order is confirmed.
Caisse executive vice-president Christian Dubé said investing in Breather allows the Quebec pension and insurance fund management giant, one of Canada’s top commercial landlords, to get ahead of an evolving real estate trend. “Breather is a young, innovative and fast-growing company with great potential on the international scene,” Mr. Dubé said. “[It] has demonstrated a unique capacity to lead within a rapidly transforming industry with a focus on technology and an ongoing focus to optimize yield management through machine learning.”
Menlo and RRE are among Breather’s past venture capital backers that are also participating in this round.
Mr. Smith predicted the market for flexible real estate would be so large that “there will be lots of winners” among the company and fellow upstarts looking to shake up the market.