“How conservative is the construction industry on a scale of one to ten, with one being most conservative? Good question, can I go negative?” laughs Mateo Zimmermann Gonzalez, investment manager at CEMEX Ventures.
CEMEX Ventures is the corporate venture capital arm of CEMEX, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of building materials with more than 45k employees and a presence in around 50 countries.
“It’s a company that’s focused on cement aggregates, ready-mix concrete and urbanisation solutions –– solutions and products for rapid urbanisation, like road materials that filter water better,” Zimmermann says, adding that to innovate in those areas means overcoming significant challenges.
“It’s not the industry per se that’s conservative,” he says. “It’s the people. It’s such a fragmented industry, there are so many players and all kinds of intersections between them. That makes innovation really tough.”
Zimmermann explains that it’s not like car manufacturing where you have lines of identical cars rolling off a conveyor. In construction each project has a different location with different partners and new, diverse outside limitations. “If you change something, it’ll affect something somewhere else,” he says.
The CEMEX approach to investing
Early on CEMEX Ventures decided to focus not on solutions to change construction today, but innovations that could radically change the industry in the future. “We’re not just focusing on the ecosystem of building materials, but the whole construction reality,” Zimmermann says.
CEMEX Ventures focuses on longer-term innovations, rather than innovating its core business. “We are really looking more at disruptive business models or agnostic technologies,” Zimmermann says. “Our job is to understand what different parts of the industry will look like in 10 years. We take a lot of insights from CEMEX’s corporate strategy, and try to evolve that into the future.
“If we’re looking into investing, it of course has to be financially interesting; it has to yield returns. But there has to be a strategic angle, let’s say something that might be interesting for CEMEX in a few years.”
CEMEX Ventures is an evergreen fund that has invested in 22 companies around the world, including Carbon Clean Solutions, Modulous and Soil Connect.
To narrow its field, the CVC has selected a few topics to focus on. Topics it thinks will be influential or possibly disruptive in the near future of construction.
Greening up construction
First, there’s green construction. “That’s a very big topic now,” Zimmermann says, given that buildings and construction are responsible for around 40% of global carbon emissions. These are investments in companies working on decarbonisation and carbon capture and storage, but also companies valorising captured carbon emissions.
In May CEMEX Ventures participated in a $150m Series C investment –– the largest ever for a point-of-source carbon capture company –– in Carbon Clean, a UK company working on technology that captures carbon on-site for heavy industries. And in April it invested in Canadian startup Carbon Upcycling Technologies, which aims to reduce carbon emissions from cement and concrete production.
Under green construction the CVC also looks at sustainable materials, waste management and building materials recycling, with notable investments including an undisclosed round in US waste recycling upstart Arqlite.
CEMEX is investing in just-in-time supply chains
Cement and concrete companies are the OGs of just-in-time supply chains –– cement has to be mixed, transported and used before it hardens. “The best performing companies in logistics are probably in the cement or concrete industries,” Zimmermann says.
At the same time, he says, the whole supply chain suffers from inefficiencies because there are so many moving parts. “From the day you do the design with some specific materials, to plan all the procurement, how to source the materials, how to move the materials, then how to manage all the fleets and the dispatching, then the delivery to the site and how the material is handled on site, and then how it’s installed and even monitored after installation, every step introduces inefficiencies that add up.”
This inefficiency relay race inspired two investments. One undisclosed amount in London-based Voyage Control, a startup building “air-traffic control” for logistics management, and participation in a $9.5m round for GoFor Delivers, a Canadian startup offering on-demand delivery of construction materials.
“I’m really hopeful to see a lot of improvements in the supply chain, because there’s so much value in terms of how materials are delivered and having a single source of truth of all the materials. And also knowing what the materials are that really, really work, and developing databases to capture that knowledge,” Zimmermann says.
Annual global labour-productivity growth in construction has averaged only 1% over the past two decades, compared with growth of 2.8% for the total world economy and 3.6% in manufacturing, according to a 2017 McKinsey report.
To put that into the context of compound growth, manufacturing, compared to two decades ago, now delivers almost twice as much value per hour worked than construction, despite starting from the same point.
“45% of European construction firms have had to limit their production due to labour shortages”
“We focus mostly on the design and execution phases, because that’s where we see there are inefficiencies in the whole process which is not connected to the construction process,” Zimmermann says, referring to processes like bidding on new projects, pre-design specifications, planning and scheduling and health and safety.
ProPlanner, a Chilean startup formerly known as Ipsum, fits squarely into this space. The startup is building a scheduling platform for construction project management and recently raised a $2.7m round — though not including CEMEX Ventures, which invested in the company in 2017.
The future of construction
Finally, CEMEX Ventures also invests in companies working on what they call construction futures, which include truly disruptive innovations such as “advanced building materials, 3D printing, industrialised construction, modular construction, robotics and thinking about the future in terms of smart cities and buildings,” Zimmermann says.
The future is a topic of particular interest, as it could provide solutions for two of the main challenges the construction industry faces: improving emissions and becoming more efficient, and making up for the lack of skilled construction workers.
“45% of European construction firms have had to limit their production due to labour shortages,” Patric Hellermann, general partner at Foundamental, a global investor in construction technology, recently told Sifted. Similar shortages are playing out in the UK, US and Asia.
The UN estimates that an additional 2.5bn people will move to urban areas by 2050 — all of those people will need somewhere to live. The construction industry needs to step up its game to keep pace.
Zimmermann believes that improvements in areas like robotics, modular construction and additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) could provide some solutions. “3D printing with construction materials has made huge improvements. It wasn’t viable just a few years ago, and that’s changing.”
CEMEX Ventures also invested in a £5m round for Modulous, a London-based outfit providing modular, pre-built building sections that can be rapidly assembled on-site.
Zimmermann also has high hopes for carbon upcycling startups. “What if carbon emissions could actually evolve from a liability to a commodity with a price?” The construction industry would be sitting on a carbon goldmine.
He believes that the recent economic downturn could also encourage better decision making.
“Construction companies will […] try to find better products to be more efficient, not only building materials but also digital tools to help streamline processes,” he says.
“It’s a slow industry but it doesn’t stop. Compared to other industries, construction is still a blue ocean […] and a lot of people are interested in solving these problems. And it’s interesting that with the current market situation that hasn’t stopped. Other things that are less important, which are nice-to-haves like the metaverse, might be more affected, but the world needs to build more, and build better.”
Alejandro Tauber is a freelance tech and business writer based in Amsterdam. He tweets from @AlejandroTauber