Q&A with smart building pioneer William Cowell de Gruchy
Construction is obsessed by AI buildings, able to regulate their heat and light. But how does it all work? William Cowell de Gruchy is the founder of Infogrid, the software company controlling some of the world's most advanced buildings. We caught up with him to discover how Infogrid is changing the building industry
Hi William! What is Infogrid?
Infogrid is a smart building platform that collects and analyses a range of building data points, providing a holistic and real-time view customers can use to meet their sustainability goals, drive operational efficiency, and improve employee productivity and well-being.
Our sensor technology is underpinned by advanced artificial intelligence, it is what makes a building ‘smart’. The AI uses analysis to automate processes and inform building decisions that will make a positive change to a building's internal environment.
Over time, it will learn how to react to low occupancy by turning off lights, predict when equipment needs maintenance checks, and identify faulty devices that are wasting too much energy. The possibilities are endless, and they all have the shared goal of ensuring a building is running at its optimal efficiency.
Why did you start the company?
My biggest passion is the natural world: preserving it, living in harmony with it and protecting it for generations to come. Infogrid is a manifestation of that passion, using a generally untapped market to make the biggest impact I can. When I started the company my driving ambition was to save our planet as much CO2 as I possibly could.
Before Infogrid, I worked in finance and did a lot of due diligence work. This gave me first-hand knowledge of how unproductive it was to have time wasted manually recording information that should have been automated. I became passionate about the role of technology as a powerful tool, when used correctly, to help save valuable time and free people to focus on more rewarding work.
Infogrid picks up the compliance burden from facilities managers through automation, so workers can spend time on the important things: improving revenue, building conditions and increasing the overall efficiency of building operations.
We’ve set ambitious targets to save 20,000 tonnes of CO2e in 2022 and are working with clients to save a further 200,000 tonnes of CO2e.
I strongly believe technology has a key role to play in our future, in the preservation of the natural world and how we can optimise our time. When used to its full potential - it can revolutionise the way business is done.
Who are your clients?
We already have a broad portfolio of blue-chip clients and products across the globe that range from JLL to the NHS and include the likes of the Royal Opera House. We continue to diversify our portfolio and further nurture our relationships with existing clients.
How is a smart building different from a traditional one?
In a smart building, you’re making the most of IoT sensors and powerful AI to optimise and automate building management, save time, money and the environment, whilst improving safety.
The reality is, buildings are overdue for an upgrade. For the majority of buildings today, the way they’re being managed is costly, manual and potentially environmentally damaging.
As the largest asset class in the world, the industry is heavily overlooked in reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. Buildings account for 39% of global energy related to CO2 emissions, and 30% of this is wasted due to inefficiency. So, it seems to me like the government is missing a critical piece of the puzzle in their goals to achieve net-zero by 2050.
Compliance and building maintenance costs the planet a lot of CO2. Engineers waste energy travelling to site, and more energy by turning on and off equipment unnecessarily just to see if it works. Processes like this can, and should, be automated – our sustainable future depends on it.
Furthermore, analysing building data creates a lucrative opportunity to identify how energy is being wasted then inform facilities managers to make decisions that can lead to next level efficiency. It is estimated switching to smart buildings could save up to 23% of indoor energy use. Seems like a good place to start in saving the planet.
Businesses can’t ignore the financial benefits of smart building technology adoption either, with less energy wasted that translates to less money being spent on simply maintaining the building and more investment available for funding their sole business function.
We make employees happier too, smart buildings support the creation of a healthy workplace. The pandemic has created a shift in employee priorities who no longer look for traditional office perks like free food or location, but place heavy emphasis on the healthiness of their building.
According to our own research, over half (58%) of those who left their workplace and have not yet returned agree they would feel more comfortable returning to the workplace if their employer was using data to improve the ‘healthiness’ of the building/workplace”. This is where smart buildings come in, to manage air quality, occupancy and cleaning across the workplace cultivating a safe and desirable environment to work in.
If companies demand their employees return, they have a moral obligation to make their employees feel safe. By collecting the data points that Infogrid does, it can provide employees with reassurance and inform optimisation of a working environment that relieves employees’ anxieties surrounding Covid-19 and subsequently benefits their overall mental health.
Can traditional buildings be retro-fitted?
The vast majority of buildings that will be standing by 2050 have already been built - retrofitting old buildings is actually most of what we do. Building new buildings goes against our business mission for a more sustainable future, as construction would waste large amounts of CO2.
With our end-to-end system, we combine the world’s smallest IoT sensors that can easily be stuck to existing building surfaces and an AI powered platform that is adaptable and scalable to meet various building demands.
Buildings are an ecosystem. No one company can attempt to cover everything within them, that’s why Infogrid has a fully open API set up – for both real time and historic data – integrating into systems that already exist. This means that data from current HVAC systems or heating apparatus already in place can feed into our AI powered platform.
Infogrid’s smart buildings platform is almost like the umbrella that sits over all of these functions, analysing how they interact with each other and how systems should react in response to their external environment. It is the brains behind all of the independent systems that exist in a building.
We want to make the process of making an existing building smart as easy as possible, so more companies are incentivised to change their own buildings.
What's your best example of an Infogrid equipped building?
The Royal Opera House, because it shows not only what Infogrid technology can do for the future, but also for the past. Many don’t realise the important role technology has yet to play in the preservation of British cultural heritage.
The Royal Opera House is home to an ornate domed ceiling which incorporates one of the oldest gilded plaster friezes in Europe. The challenge is that within this historically important and in some ways fragile building, specialist equipment which produces a lot of heat and condensation needs to be used to support Opera as we know it today. We installed 200 sensors backed by our smart buildings’ platform, to give the facilities team the tools they need to preserve this ceiling for years to come.
It's great to see modern technology helping to preserve the past, and that because of Infogrid more people will be able to experience the Opera as it should be for generations to come.
Do you plan to make your own sensors in the future?
We set up Infogrid with the intention of being sensor agnostic as we believe this is the only way to ensure our clients are able to use the right sensors, in the right spaces at the right time. Sensor technology is continually evolving, new players are coming onto the market all the time with brand new features and use cases. We want our clients to be able to incorporate the data from any sensors they use as these may not necessarily be the same across all their offices. Our goal is to be able to extract the data from any number or group of sensors, enrich it, and then offer impactful insights that make buildings leaner and greener,
We hear you've had a lively career! What are some of the jobs you've had before becoming an entrepreneur?
It’s safe to say I have a vibrant career history. I started in Finance, originally working in financial data analysis and fund management, before I decided to change direction to become a Tank Commander in the British Army. I spent five years there, was promoted through senior leadership positions, and completed major deployments across Europe, North America, Africa and The Middle East. I even did some cage fighting in Thailand for a bit.
But none of these jobs seemed to stick. It became clear my passion is the preservation of the natural world and this is ultimately what drove me to become an entrepreneur. When I founded Infogrid it seemed like the perfect fit, it had what all my other endeavours seemed to lack - a mission centred around how we can ultimately make the planet a better place to live.
Tell us about the Infogrid team
It’s hard to believe at the start of last year we were just a small team of 20 people. Since then we have grown to nearly 200 people, and aim to reach 600 in the next 6 months. When you are a smaller team it's easy to maintain a tight company culture, everyone knows everyone, but as you scale up this can be much harder to maintain.
I have made a conscious effort to ensure we continue with the tight-knit culture we had in the early days as we grow. It's really important to me that people feel accountable to each other, that we are all owners of our wider mission. We have a “grown up” rules approach, we let you define how, when and where you want to work. One of my top priorities is ensuring people feel empowered in the workplace and that the business can be shaped by the people who work here.
What's your five-year vision?
Our vision is made of two pillars, to be greener and to make people’s lives healthier. We are a mission driven business, and I would consider our business a failure if it hit its revenue goals but not its sustainability and people goals.
The focus of our first pillar is to be greener. Our north star metric is to prevent 20,000 tonnes of CO2e, that’s equivalent to 30,000 UK to US flights. We strive to prevent 10 times this amount, because when it comes to the survival of the planet targets cannot be half-hearted.
When we say we care about the planet, we also mean we care for all the people that exist within it. Infogrid aims to create a healthier internal work environment for more employees, as we return to the office we can’t fall into old patterns. We need to create a workplace people will be proud to return to. We have a dual north star metric to create 1M healthier working hours - that’s equivalent to 114 years. As with the planet, we need to go bigger, so our aim is to create 10m annual healthier working hours.