Ask Me Anything: Separating Innovation from Technology with Eric Law of Swinerton

At Shadow Ventures, we’ve built a community of tech-focused industry professionals who refuse to accept the status quo. In our community Slack channel, we frequently host Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions on issues that pertain to our ecosystem. Recently, we had the pleasure of talking to Eric Law of Swinerton. Here’s what Eric told us.

BACKGROUND:

  • Presenter: Our speaker Eric Law is pushing technology limits to elegantly solve construction business problems. Mr. Law is a recovering entrepreneur currently building an industry-leading innovation team at Swinerton. Previously he led the Construction Product team for Bentley Systems after the acquisition of his company EADOC.  Mr. Law earned his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. To escape technology, he heads to the mountains with his family to ski, mountain bike and climb a rock or two.  
  • Topic: Swinerton’s innovation program is focused on reducing the cost and duration of construction activities. Their innovation projects range from field activities like installing timber screws to leveraging the generative design and industrialized construction principals to move from project to product delivery. Learn how they apply technology as an enabler of these transformations and not a driver for change.

AMA CLIFF NOTES: 

  • Eric, could you tell us a little more about the work you are doing at Swinerton?
    • Sure, I joined Swinerton just over 2 years ago to build an innovation team. Our focus is looking for opportunities across our business lines to dramatically increase the value of our services. IE how do we grow profitability.
    • Most of our efforts have focused on our self perform groups, where we spend a lot of money on labor and where labor is hard to find
      • For clarity, what are self-performing groups?
        • Self-performing groups are like our own in house trade contractors. These groups hire labor, buy the materials and do the work. For example, we have a self perform drywall group
    • Our innovation group follows the VC model where I can invest say $1M and get a $10M return from the business. The investment could be buying, building or co-developing the solution to the problem 
  • Do you all have a venture fund, or do you look at opportunities deal by deal and invest when the opportunity is right?
    • We have an in house R&D budget that is used for funding internal projects. We are starting to explore investing in startups
  • Did Swinerton immediately buy into this idea of a VC model for your group? And/or how long did it take to develop that business model within your group and get buy-in?
    • Initially no, our first year we spent educating the company on the value of partnering with startups and moving our adoption up the curve. As we have moved through our roadmap our executives have seen the value in our work and asked what is the next step. It took 2 years to get them to this point.
  • To you, what is the difference between innovation and technology? Where is the overlap and how do you separate the two?
    • For us, innovation is making a substantial change. Specifically for our team, it is a change in how we <Swinerton> deliver construction services. We focus on the business problem first and look at technology as an enabler of the business change
    • There are so many companies <contractors> and tech firms that go after the technology first and then try to find a business problem to solve with it
  • Once an opportunity to innovate has been identified, how do you sort through the weeds to evaluate and rank startups?
    • The good news is if we have identified a new way to deliver a service or problem we need help solving and are looking for partners the list is usually pretty short, very few startups are truly doing game-changing work.  Lots of startups are doing incremental improvement which is good and the industry needs these.
    • We use our network of VC’s and industry startup veterans to help us search for startups or entrepreneurs looking to solve the problem.
    • For example, we have several problems that we believe can be solved with robotics and machines. Since we could not find a startup to partner with we started building our own
  • What startups do you think are delivering game-changing innovations?
    • Avvir.io is a great example, they are solving the qty and quality of work put in place. They take our laser scans and BIM model and turn that into qty and quality of work put in place. This provides us with a data-driven qty of work that we can use for progress payments, schedule updates, and labor productivity. Going from guestimates to actual qty installed we believe to be a game-changer
    • We are also working with www.dustyrobotics.com, their layout robot is a great entry point for robotics onsite, this tool does interior wall layout. This is a solution that is faster and reduces worker strain.
  • How do you all feel about modular, prefab and real timber construction? Do you see this as disruptive and if so what are your plans to address a more manufacturer based construction environment?
    • Prefab is a great solution to onsite fabrication. We have our own in house Mass Timber group that is leading the way out of our Portland office.  Mass Timber is great in areas where lumber is readily available <Pacific NW, Southeast, Northern Europe> also these buildings look great.
    • Will it change the industry? Sort of. Initially, most companies are moving the work from the field to a warehouse, this is a great first step <safer, consistent, higher quality, some labor productivity>, next step is how they can automate the processes with machines. Hopefully, it goes faster than the auto industry, it has taken them over one hundred years to get to semi-autonomous assembly lines

For the entire conversation check out the Industry Professional Slack or click here to apply.

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