March 2021

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Shifting to PropTech:

An interview with Gina Elliott & Ken Sinclair

Gina Elliott started her career in IT, transitioning to smart building consulting engineering and has since worked for building automation manufacturers large and small, always seeking the most innovative technologies that are market disruptors. She is now at Switch Automation as VP of Strategy where she is working to develop new go-to-market strategies for software-based building operations infrastructure. Switch is led by Deb Noller with an executive team comprised of 50% female leadership and 50% female employees in engineering, programming and operations.


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Ken Sinclair: Good to see you Gina and congratulations on the new position at Switch Automation. So why Switch, and why now?

Gina Elliott: Thanks Ken. Why Switch? They had me at a demo of Switch Dx3. Also, almost every industry has been transformed by digital technology, from taxi service to food delivery to movies and TV. Why are we still behind? I’ve been at this for a while and it seems every few years, there is excitement around something new like integrated automation or IoT. But still, very little progress. I am a bit of a professional nomad and I really want to be part of something revolutionary that holistically impacts everything around it.

Ken: Such as?

ginaGina: I’ve worked with integrators, contractors and distributors. These guys have built careers and businesses around brands. The industry is transitioning subtly with the influx of capital and new technology as well as changes in how people live and work. They need products that are flexible to meet their business needs and the diversity of their customer base. I respect what they’ve built and their responsibility to employees and customers. If I can help them succeed in their goals, then I succeed. I know I sound very idealistic but those reading this that know me, know I mean it. And if we make the world a better place while doing it, what a great personal legacy.

Look, we need choices, not data silos. Partners and customers should have the flexibility to choose the solutions based on their business requirements. There shouldn’t be a question of data ownership or being locked into to working with one manufacturer or contractor with proprietary technology. There are a lot of new companies with very progressive solutions.

Ken: Are big brands the safer choice for most?

Gina: I guess it depends on your definition of “safe.” Companies like Google, Microsoft and Netflix started in someone’s garage. Just because a company is small or new doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the goods. Switch develops software with programmers and data scientists applying their expertise specific to this industry. It is what we know and do best. Would you buy an AHU from Switch? Probably not. So why would it be “safer” to buy digital technology from a 100+ year old company that has historically only manufactured hardware?

Ken: So we in the industry should take a chance?

Gina: We live in exciting times. It is easier than ever to start a company thanks to digital technology – hello online classes and funding agencies. Our newest partners are game changers. They’ve left corporate America and they’re really looking at addressing the market from a different perspective – with PropTech.

Following up on my previous statement about safe investments - with digital technology, there is less risk.  Systems communicate with other systems or software platforms, meaning customers aren’t locked into ecosystems and services where they’re price gauged or held hostage to developing business based on someone else’s need. Owners, operators and contractors can transition to companies that meet their business needs while retaining data ownership. Digital technology not only normalizes proprietary data but it normalizes business. Remember when you couldn’t port your mobile number to another carrier? Gone. Or you dragged your feet buying a new phone because you didn’t want to lose your contacts, photos and all that? Gone. It’s all in the cloud so just reach out and grab it.

Ken: Do you think we are finally seeing real change?

Gina: I am cautiously optimistic. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella himself said that he’s seen “2 years of digital transformation in 2 months” in real estate. I can say that the type of partners that I’ve met in the last 2 months have a very different outlook than what I’ve experienced in the past. Also, customers are much more receptive to digital technology. Perhaps it is an effect of COVID-19. Or maybe it’s the many years of Automated Buildings and its contributors educating consumers. But I think this is only a small part of the change to come.

Ken: What’s next?

Gina: Obsolescence. There are going to be some traditional automation products that go the way of the rotary dial telephone and some of our building system protocols will disappear. For anyone pessimistic about the impact of digital on our industry, just rent a video from Blockbuster, buy a camera from Kodak or buy a book from Borders.

I also think building design will change with a focus on physical security, cybersecurity and environmental security. How we buy will be based on need, meaning what we need now and nothing we don’t. Digital technology will allow an ‘a la carte’ approach that is beneficial to the owner, operator and contractor. In addition, it will allow for faster innovation to meet the very different environmental landscape we live in. Historically, you install a BMS and there isn’t much change in the 15 years you have it. Digital technology allows for a broad approach to develop applications, functions and features much more rapidly.

Ken: Environmental security?

Gina: Get this – the UN tells us that 39% of total carbon emissions in the U.S. are created by commercial buildings. Not only is that shocking and embarrassing, it’s expensive. Seriously expensive.

With buildings sitting empty for the past year, COVID-19 should have been the perfect chance to make a dent in this number and save a hell of a lot of money along the way. Guess what? The industry blew it and in many cases property owners actually spent more, having to cough up for additional cleaning services to support public safety and deliver on local guidelines.

Anyway with the right tech, we could have done things very differently. Proactive versus reactive. Another prediction for you – COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. There will be more as we continue to expand our human footprint. Environmental safety, clean air, and the ability to meet the changing needs of the outside environment will play a major part in the decision-making of commercial property owners and operators.

Ken: So how should companies pick their digital technology vendors?

Gina: Look at your vendors’ people. Do they have a strong digital and building automation background? There’s a lot of vaporware in the market with no real industry knowledge, so I would be extremely wary of that. If a company promises you AI and machine learning, make sure you know where they’re getting their data.

Next, make sure you go for an open solution – if you make an investment into yet another closed ecosystem you’ll regret it. Seek out a vendor that is ‘data agnostic,’ meaning the platform doesn’t discriminate against any specific brand and the owner of the data is not in question. Also, ask to see their roadmap so that you know the vendor is scaling to suit the needs of the market.

Ken: What’s next?

Gina: Embrace change, create a business strategy that is agile to adopt to the changing needs of the market and your business. Work with a vendor that is easy to do business with and realizes partnership is a two-way street. If you don’t have PropTech or digital technology in your portfolio or line card, find a suitable partner.


For the latest PropTech industry insights and thought leadership connect with Gina on LinkedIn here or shoot her an email to start the conversation.


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