What Global Banks Look For to Invest in PropTech

Executives at Citigroup and Barclays say they are interested in proptech companies destined to scale.

From left: Ralph Rose and Allison Sedrish/ Photo by Betsy Kim

NEW YORK CITY—In its 2018 year-end report, CRETech stated $9.6 billion was invested in the commercial real estate tech sector that year. One session at the annual Catalyst event, organized by Honest Buildings and Convene, looked into why the largest global banks are investing in proptech.

Panelists Ralph Rose, managing director and COO global real estate at Citigroup Global Markets, and Allison Sedrish, director at Barclays Investment Bank and co-head of proptech coverage, said investment in proptech has been slower than fintech due to the industries’ needs and cultures.

Sedrish pointed out traditionally real estate professional did not need technology on a daily basis. Unlike with finance, owners and operators are not buying buildings every day so could shy away from it.

Rose added the demand for technology in the financial world has been very consumer driven. “In the last seven or eight years, in real estate it was easy to make a good return through rent increases, occupancy increases, cap rate compression, interest rate reductions. There were a lot of ways a lot easier than trying to figure out technology,” he said.

“If you look at how much has been raised in the proptech space, it’s still early compared to some other spaces,” said Sedrish. “It’s probably three to five years behind fintech.” Barclays is anticipating opportunities in the next 12 to 18 months. Because proptech is still in an early phase, Sedrish opined it’s still a great time for investments.

Both speakers said ignoring tech in the real estate industry will no longer be possible. Rose explained this has to do with the end of the real estate cycle approaching. “If you don’t have another trick up your sleeve, you’re not making your building or business more efficient, and you’re not attracting the flexible tenant which demands a different model, you’re falling behind.” he said.

The moderator, journalist Konrad Putzier from the Wall Street Journal, asked both speakers what they are looking for in a promising proptech company.

First and foremost, Barclays looks at the strength of the management team, the vision of the company and execution, said Sedrish. They look at what the technology is trying to solve and how the tech company will drive adoption by landlords and owners.

“How is this really going to add value to the landlords and owners? As we’re still early in real estate tech, to actually scale these products, it’s important to demonstrate value propositions to the owners,” she said.

What Citigroup looks at in proptech is similar to what they look for in technology across different industries, said Rose. His bank gets input from colleagues within the Citi Ventures unit. That division has current investments in tech companies across 50 platforms, some which overlap with fintech and proptech. Similar to Sedrish’s assessment, Citigroup takes a focused look at the management team, he said.

Rose provided examples of the questions his bank asks about proptech companies: What are their backgrounds? Do they have track records of building businesses, scaling businesses? Does the model of the business suggest that once they get to a certain scale level they’ll be able to get cash flow from the business? Is the problem that they are going to solve one having a scale opportunity to take their business and grow it on a stand-alone basis? Can the business diversify?

He emphasized the company’s experience does not have to be in real estate.

“The raison d’être of proptech companies is to bring something to the real estate industry that isn’t present,” said Rose.