Beca’s new approach to R&D pays off
"Beca gets immense value from the support we receive from Callaghan Innovation - it makes good business sense for us to move to the R&D Tax Incentive scheme."
Mark Fleming, CFO, Beca
- Beca’s New Ventures Accelerator (NVA) allows anyone to pitch an idea, which is thoroughly tested and validated via a ‘fail fast’, agile and lean startup methodology.
- The approach has yielded new award-winning technologies and services that have been rolled into Beca’s commercial offerings.
- The Accelerator has encouraged a culture change at Beca in how it approaches innovation, entrepreneurship and the disruptive forces facing its customers and the industry.
- Callaghan Innovation’s support in the form of a Growth Grant, student fellowships and technical advice has allowed Beca to accelerate its R&D efforts.
When Beca’s building scientist Dr Shaan Cory proposed a new way to improve the energy efficiency of commercial buildings, Beca decided on an accelerated approach.
The professional services consultancy employs 3,300 people across Asia-Pacific and has worked on some of the biggest and most iconic community shaping projects in the region. Aware that customers were facing accelerating forces of change - environmental, technological and social, Beca realised it needed a faster way to innovate to serve their needs.
Two years ago it created the New Ventures Accelerator (NVA), a lean seven-person unit based at Beca’s Auckland headquarters. From the start, it was imbued with the traits you’d expect of a startup incubator – experts in innovation, entrepreneurship, technology, commercialisation and marketing – but with a venture capitalist’s eye for smart, scalable investments.
The Beca New Ventures Accelerator team share their insights into what they’ve learned from their work in the accelerator in this Tech Week blog.
Working inside a large, century-old company in an industry that has a low tolerance for failure when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line, the NVA was tasked with commercialising new services to help tackle the big problems Beca and its customers are facing.
Starting with the problem
For Dr Cory, the problem was a pressing one. He and his colleagues were run off their feet assisting customers to optimise their building management systems to reduce energy consumption and their carbon footprint.
“Owning a building is like owning a car,” explains Dr Cory. “You get wear and tear. Your energy consumption, and therefore the cost of operating your building, starts to creep up. The comfort of the environment starts to decline. Typically, the degradation is incremental and sometimes unpredictable. But there's a long-term cumulative impact.”
The high demand for Beca’s building management consulting work created a challenge: to scale up delivery to meet market demand. Dr Cory had a potential solution - B-Tune. The outcome was to automate part of the process, using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to gather data from building management systems and energy meters, and use artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse performance and energy efficiency and set KPIs to track.
B-Tune draws on Beca’s deep understanding of building management and the big data modern buildings generate, to create a service that would allow building owners to reduce energy consumption and costs, cut emissions and improve occupant comfort – with a fast ROI.
Previous innovation pathways for Beca employees with bright ideas involved developing their projects in their spare time before getting noticed and supported. That changed with the NVA. Now there is a dedicated venture team, funding to develop ideas, and even more empowerment to free up staff to work on new innovations - turning ideas into ventures.
Any Beca employee, client or strategic partner can submit an idea or opportunity to be considered for the NVA treatment.
Sam Fielden, Commercial Manager of the New Ventures Accelerator explains: “They might bring just a concept, a minimum viable product they’ve developed in their own time, or something off the back of a project we’ve done with a client.”
Justifying the investment
A crucial test comes when the venture team pitches to Beca’s Investment Committee who decide whether to greenlight them for further investment – or stop the venture. B-Tune made the cut and Dr Cory found his venture fast-tracked into a process of research, design and rapid prototyping, which lasted a few months from beginning to end.
“The Lean Startup is one of the core, enabling methodologies that we use,” says Fielden.
The methodology aims to shorten product development cycles and to rapidly ascertain if a proposed product or business model is viable.
Partnering for R&D growth
It was discussions with Callaghan Innovation that led Beca to startup accelerator Creative HQ, which assisted Beca in the early stages of developing the NVA.
“With the Growth Grant we received from Callaghan Innovation, we’ve also been able to significantly scale up the level of R&D we do at Beca, running more projects and taking them to market in an accelerated period of time,” says Fielden.
Callaghan Fellowships and R&D Experience Grants have also allowed undergraduate engineering students to work with Beca on innovative projects, such as an AI-powered chatbot designed to reinvent the process of gathering community feedback on building and engineering projects.
With Callaghan Innovation’s Growth Grants now replaced by the 15% R&D Tax Incentive, Beca is looking at how it will leverage the incentive to boost its R&D efforts even further.
“Beca gets immense value from the support we receive from Callaghan Innovation – it makes good business sense for us to move to the R&D Tax Incentive scheme” says Mark Fleming, Beca’s Chief Financial Officer.
Beca’s approach to R&D has always been focused on delivering better client outcomes but more recently, through the support from Callaghan Innovation and the establishment of the NVA, there has been a more disciplined approach to unlocking the value of innovation by focusing on accelerating and scaling up the commercialisation of R&D.
“While NVA focuses on the business commercialisation end of the innovation spectrum, it is just one part of the long-standing innovation culture at Beca.”
B-Tune, Beacon and beyond
Ultimately B-Tune delivered on Dr Cory’s vision. A successful pilot project led to its commercial release. It has since won several prestigious building industry awards. When Beca applied B-Tune to Auckland University of Technology’s new Mana Hauora building, it led to a reduction in energy consumption of 30%, saving AUT $27k a year. Building owners’ investment in B-Tune is typically recouped in 12 - 18 months.
“Instead of plugging Dr Cory into each building, we figured out a way to get meaningful insights out of these buildings by plugging in artificial intelligence,” says Fielden.
“Without access to the NVA, it may have taken Dr Cory four times as long to develop B-Tune. We may even have missed out on its long-term impact entirely.”
The NVA team continue to iterate and refine their processes and methodologies as the NVA establishes itself as an integral part of Beca’s R&D and commercialisation activities.
Other commercialised R&D projects deploying exponential technologies:
Beca is reimagining the way construction sites are being monitored through IoT instrumentation, increasing confidence that client projects are safe and protecting the environment. By leveraging Beca’s R&D, the NVA team worked to commercialise specialist instrumentation to provide real-time project awareness – ultimately minimising the risk of project delivery.
Virtual Reality (VR) Cycling
Leveraging R&D and the consultancy’s deep domain knowledge, Beca has commercialised a Virtual Reality (VR) Cycling product and service. Due to the growing popularity of cycling – fueled by the e-bike revolution – local councils and the New Zealand Transport Agency are working on projects to deliver safer cycling infrastructure.
A team of nine spent hundreds of hours on the R&D, focused on software design and integration, creating a simulation incorporating actual ground survey data and photogrammetry to create ‘real world’ environments that reflect the reality experienced by cyclists. The VR gives an immersive experience of a new road design for clients and enables better public consultation and decision making at the design stage.
An outcome of the Virtual Reality (VR) Cycling R&D is creating road safety tools and education for vulnerable road users, especially when putting new infrastructure around school crossings. For example, by immersing children in VR they can safely be taught to use the new school crossing in a fun, human scaled and real-world view.