Backers of 3D Repo had to learn to pitch to investors as they sought to grow.
Anyone who has ever watched an episode of Dragons’ Den will know that getting the investment to take a concept from idea to marketplace can floor the most confident of business people.
So how did the team behind 3D Repo, recently voted Start-up of the Year at New Civil Engineer’s Festival of Innovation and Technology, secure the cash needed to make that transition?
Aggregating digital information
3D Repo operates a cloud-based digital construction platform. It allows the construction sector to aggregate digital project information – such as building information modelling plans and Civil 3D plans – in one place, where information and changes can be stored, tracked and shared, giving managed access to all stakeholders.
The software allows architects, engineers and contractors to use a single website for their project data, including managing project revisions, highlighting health and safety issues and collaborating on the project in a live online environment.
Photo 05 11 2018, 11 51 28
The idea came about when founder and chief executive Jozef Dobos undertook an Arup-sponsored research doctorate in computer science at University College London. Arup’s brief was to take its digital 3D models and enable them to be managed through the internet, ideally on a web browser.
“I was always interested in 3D graphics and the problem of scalability. The massive size of 3D models in construction is very different to, let’s say, the gaming industry where you have assets which are heavily optimised, with a lot of artistic skill,” he says.
“In construction and architecture it is the other way around. You just need the design to convey all the engineering information, but you don’t spend any time and effort trying to optimise it in any way.”
This interest in optimising project graphics was married with the knowledge that project information is often stored inefficiently. For example, Dobos would see a project where information was stored everywhere from people’s individual computers to appointed document controllers.
I was always interested in 3D graphics and the problem of scalability
After obtaining his doctorate, Dobos moved to Cognicity, Canary Wharf Group’s incubator for start-ups. It was there that he got the idea of progressing the technology from a product which is custom built for individual clients to a product which could penetrate the whole sector.
3D Repo was awarded £50,000 after winning a challenge competition set by Cognicity for virtual design and construction. This gave it the chance to test the technology on real projects. It was during the time with Cognicity that Dobos met Andrew Norrie, who eventually joined the firm as commercial director in February 2017.
“I had sat in co-ordination meetings before, where people would be there with bits of paper and notepads, writing stuff down, and at the next meeting no one would know what was agreed. But having the information all in one place, you could see that they could go back and look at what was agreed at the last meeting,” says Dobos.
At Cognicity, 3D Repo also met with Sussex Place Ventures, a managed venture capital firm owned by London Business School. They gave 3D Repo a further cash injection to see it through another year while it got on its feet. It has now grown from a business with a turnover of around £327,000 in the last financial year to one with a projected turnover of close to £1M in the current financial year.
Getting the investment
So how did it secure the Sussex Place Ventures cash?
“Investors want to be convinced that there’s a potential market, it is sizeable and you have a route into it. And if you can demonstrate that, you can very easily whet their appetite,” says Dobos.
But he admitted it can be challenging to convince investors from outside construction, who can be deterred by long lead in times.
For Norrie, the transition from being a sales person to pitching to investors was challenging at first, even for someone who contacted an HS2 boss directly on Linkedin and managed to secure a meeting to show what 3D Repo can do.
“I’m a sales guy at heart and pitching to investors is a very different thing to have to do. You have to take yourself into the mind of someone who doesn’t necessarily understand the construction industry. It’s complex, not just on a technical level but the process of a construction project too. If they don’t understand the construction process, it can be hard for them to understand how they’re ever going to make any money out of that and the risk/reward factors,” he says.
Managing investors’ expectations
Norrie cites the example of a recent article in New Civil Engineer where Conservative MP Jacobs Rees-Mogg told the magazine that High Speed 2 (HS2) should be scrapped in favour of other infrastructure projects, including a Bath bypass.
“Even though that’s not going to happen, because it’s out there, we know we are going to get a call from our investors saying ‘are they going to scrap HS2?’ Everything we’re bidding on is HS2, but these are things you have to deal with – people who aren’t in the construction industry – and we say ‘don’t worry there are bigger things at play here, that’s just politics’,” he explains.
The firm now works with major players in the sector, including engineering consultants such as Atkins and Crossrail.
3D Repo knows that if the sector is to digitise and improve productivity, then new technology uptake has to be faster, and that ensuring the technology protects intellectual property companies are reluctant to share.
“People are not scared to share data, it’s not the actual model they’re bothered about, it’s the intelligence behind it that they have created: templates, using Revit or Civils 3D, probably spending five or six years creating the workflow. If you give someone the native file, you give them all the IP behind that, all the templates mappings. We allow you to just take the geometry and data and not take the intelligence of how it was built,” Norrie explains.
The firm says it will keep on innovating. Earlier this year it launched clash detection functionality on its 3D Diff technology, where users can instantly identify and zoom right in to a clash on a model.
The firm has just launched Safetibase, an online platform for tracking and analysing health and safety issues. Development of the technology was supported by a consortium including Atkins, Mott MacDonald, Laing O’Rourke, and Tideway. According to Dobos, this is proof the industry can work together to collaboratively solve problems in an open source environment, something he believes is crucial if the sector is to modernise at pace.