Atlanta a growing land of promise for construction tech

As its population continues to grow, Atlanta is seeing a surge in start-up opportunities, including many for those in construction technology. (Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

The Atlanta Falcons may have suffered a tough Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots this past Sunday after being up 19 points with just 9:45 left on the clock, but their city still has plenty to celebrate these days. The Georgia capital has added 424,000 people to its metro population since 2010, it climbed from 61st to 50th place in the past year on US News & World Report’s list of the 100 Best Places to Live in the USA, its Falcons and Braves will play in brand-new stadiums in 2017, it’s home to major companies such as Home Depot, and, most importantly to us, its star is rising in the construction technology sector.

K. P. Reddy, cofounder of The Combine, an Atlanta-based hands-on VC firm, is also CEO of The Combine’s latest venture, Konstru, a start-up spun out of structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti’s tech accelerator, TTWiiN. The Combine will spin out four other start-ups from TTWiiN in the near future. (Photo courtesy of The Combine)

At the vanguard of this ascent is The Combine, a venture firm cofounded by serial entrepreneur K. P. Reddy, who has spent more than 25 years dividing his time between tech and civil engineering endeavors. Though it’s based in Atlanta, The Combine’s reach extends nationally, and it recently inked a partnership deal with international structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti to help spin out five of the firm’s internal organizations into stand-alone start-up companies. The five companies will come from Thornton Tomasetti’s technology accelorator, TTWiiN, and The Combine will apply its hands-on venture approach to them. “We’re less consultants and more practitioners,” Reddy says. “What we’re helping with is, literally, formation of the company, sales and marketing, product development. What we find a lot of times is that the product development is in prototype, so you have to make it commercial-ready.”

The first company out of the gate is Konstru, and Reddy actually serves as its CEO. The company’s signature product, which allows businesses and teams using different BIM software applications to share and tweak 3-D designs and collaborate on projects more easily, is already in beta testing and has already exceeded its beta sign-up goal. Reddy is there to serve as a steady hand as the company’s younger leaders learn how to expand it. “The process … is that the team that’s engaged with us gets to learn by doing,” Reddy says. “Our fundamental belief is that entrepreneurship is an apprentice program; it’s not an academic program.”

“Our collaboration with The Combine provides the best of both worlds,” Thomas Scarangello, chairman and CEO Thornton Tomasetti, said in a release. “It enables Thornton Tomasetti to continue driving industry-leading innovation by focusing on our core business, while The Combine’s expert team helps us efficiently commercialize our technologies in the AEC industry and beyond.”

Across the street from The Combine is ATDC, the start-up incubator of Reddy’s alma mater, Georgia Tech, and it, too, has a hand in the construction technology space in the form of Pointivo. The young company is refining technology that can capture accurate 3-D models and measurements of built environments using images from smartphones, drones, and other devices. Reddy was on an advisory team that helped the company land a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, and now he’s trying to help its leadership connect with the right businesspeople. “Pointivo’s ability to use a smartphone or drone to automatically inspect, measure, and model any structure will transform the construction industry,” he says, and he sees the company’s work as particularly important in the face of ongoing labor shortages. “If we actually had to inspect all the infrastructure that’s failing in this country, there literally are not enough people and hours in the day to do so.”

Atlanta’s Tech Square district is an aspiring construction tech innovator’s paradise, teeming with start-ups, incubators, coworking spaces, venture firms, and corporate innovation centers that interact and cross-pollinate one another with ideas. (Photo: James Emery)

Both The Combine and ATDC are located in Tech Square, which, according to Reddy, is where visiting construction tech innovators would likely spend about 80 percent of their time. Situated at the edge of the Georgia Tech campus, the district comprises only eight or nine blocks, but it’s home to other venture firms such as BLH Venture Partners—overseen, in part, by Billy L. Harbert, president and CEO of construction firm B. L. Harbert International—and other incubators and coworking spaces such as TechSquare Labs and the Garage. “What’s also cool about Tech Square is that you have innovation centers,” Reddy says. “AT&T has a Foundry innovation center here. Home Depot’s innovation center is here. ADP’s innovation center is here. Southern Company, which is a big utility, has an innovation center. There’s a massive list of innovation centers that are all right here that allow and afford start-ups to interact with large companies.”

Others echo the many opportunities the area affords. “We often talk about this living, vibrant ecosystem we have here in Tech Square and how entities such as ATDC help to make those cross connections,” Blake Patton, a partner at Tech Square Ventures, said in a September 2016 interview on Georgia Tech’s news site. “If it wasn’t for ATDC, I wouldn’t have met [Habib Fathi, CTO of Pointivo], nor would I have met [Dan Ciprari, CEO of Pointivo,] and been able to connect them in the formation of the company. Pointivo’s success reflects the unique ecosystem here.”

Don’t expect to find a secret spot where a lot of the area’s major players negotiate and do their deals, though. Reddy says a lot of the discussion actually happens at the local Starbucks. “You tend to run into a lot of people there,” he adds. “You’ll find me at the Waffle House a few times.”

Orbiting Tech Square are hip nearby districts such as the Old Fourth Ward and West Midtown, which has Octane, “the local, cool coffee place,” Reddy says, and you can also find other construction tech players, including Kahua, which has released new drawing and scheduling apps in the past year for its collaborative project management software, used by, among other major firms, Clark Construction. “We are excited with this new addition to our game-changing platform approach,” Kahua President Brian Moore said in a release about the scheduling app.

“What’s also cool about Tech Square is that you have innovation centers. AT&T has a Foundry innovation center here. Home Depot’s innovation center is here. … There’s a massive list of innovation centers that are all right here that allow and afford start-ups to interact with large companies.”

— K. P. Reddy, Cofounder, The Combine

In a sign that the area’s tech start-up frenzy won’t be slowing anytime soon, Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, announced January 12 that the city itself is joining forces with Georgia Tech and ten Atlanta-based corporations to launch Engage, an accelerator and $15 million venture fund. “Atlanta is the Southeast’s technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship capital, with the third-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the country,” Reed said, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “We must take advantage of these unique assets to further stimulate our growing ecosystem of start-ups and growth-stage companies, connecting them to capital, talent, and mentorship.”

A piece of that $15 million pie could go to the next big idea in construction tech. It just depends on who decides to head down to the ATL soon.