INSIDE INNOVATION: Brainbox AI

Frank Sullivan, Chief Commercial Officer of Brainbox AI, speaks to UKGBC about what innovation means to him and how they're helping to build a better built environment.
Brainbox AI – web

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August 1, 2022

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What is your elevator pitch? 

BrainBox AI uses autonomous artificial intelligence technology to optimize the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning for commercial buildings. Our industry-leading solution reduces energy costs, lengthens equipment life, increases tenant comfort, and, most importantly, reduces carbon emissions. By focusing on HVAC, we are targeting a building’s largest energy source in a highly concentrated way – and we’re doing this at scale, globally.

Of course, there are others using autonomous AI for similar purposes, but what makes us unique is how we leverage it. We don’t just send insights via a dashboard to a building operator or facilities team, instructing them on how best to optimize. Instead, our solution communicates directly with the building management system, collecting data on the building’s behaviours and merging it with external data such as weather forecasts, utility tariffs, pollution levels, and occupancy rates to provide the most optimal solution for each specific building. As you can see, BrainBox AI is much more than just data visualisation.

­­We are also rapidly evolving to keep up with changing technologies and climates. For example, we’ve recently partnered with WattTime, an environmental tech organization that aims to reduce emissions by using a very rich, hyper-accurate database of the carbon intensity of electrical grids across North America and Europe. Access to this data means that our solution can help buildings use cleaner energy. For instance, if we know what the grid intensity has historically been on downtown London’s hottest days (when the carbon intensity of the grid varies hourly), our technology can intuitively pre-cool a building in the city during times when there’s less stress on the grid and energy is cleaner.

How did your start-up get to where it is today? 

Our principal founder and Chief Technology Officer is Jean-Simon Venne, a former commissioning agent. One day, after working on an optimization project, he said to himself, “Instead of a reactive environment where you are simply turning knobs in response to a building deviating from its optimal settings, there should be a way to automatically maintain those settings by marrying autonomous control with AI prediction and ongoing optimization.”

He reached out to Sean Neely, who is now vice-chairman of our board, and together they incubated this idea, going on to co-found BrainBox AI in Montreal in 2017. They took their time designing the early version, perfecting a long chain of connecting, mapping, and learning a building’s characteristics before deploying and monitoring it. The company officially launched in 2019, and today our solution has been installed in over 100 million square feet of commercial real estate across five continents.

What does innovation mean to you? 

In short, it’s constant evolution. Innovation is necessary for technological progress, and it is incumbent on innovative young companies like us to consistently innovate to drive technology forward.

How hungry is the built environment for innovation? 

I think the answer to this is mixed. There are pockets within the sector that embrace innovation and there are some that are more set in their ways. But we do see this changing. For years there was a complete lack of standardization in terms of mechanical infrastructure, control systems, and security and fire protection systems. Now, due to new building standards coming into effect (largely as a response to the climate crisis), there is a shift toward using innovation to universally leverage data and orchestrate it across systems. Additionally, the problem of wasted energy in the built environment is growing, and the solution lies in scalable digital retrofits that accelerate innovation and help drive cities towards net zero. It’s due to this that we can see a growing hunger for innovation in the built environment.

What needs to change to help encourage more innovation? 

I think there needs to be more risk taking. Of course, ideas are helpful, but application and execution are essential to move the needle on innovation. That’s why we’re trying to minimize as much risk as possible for customers by presenting opportunities, stepping up our security standards (we are SOC2 certified), and partnering with the world’s leading IoT manufacturers and vendors, such as ABB. In essence, what’s needed are first movers (like UK real estate company, Landsec, with whom we’ve recently partnered) who are willing to take the leap on new technologies. After that, the rest will follow.

What are the biggest challenges you have faced as a start-up? 

There are three main challenges we face. Firstly, the search for talent is ferocious. Attracting, retaining, and motivating world-class talent in a global market is a highly competitive ordeal. Our second big challenge is scalable growth. We need to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations, delivering a consistent outcome in an environment where legislature and energy prices are constantly changing. Our third challenge lies in encouraging a comfortably conservative industry to embrace new technology and methodologies to achieve their desired outcomes.

What’s your advice for new innovators and start-ups in the built environment? 

I’d say stay open, stay nimble, stay curious. The built environment is not an easy industry to innovate, no doubt at every corner you will see an obstacle, but perseverance is key because it’s an industry in dire need of innovative, secure solutions.

Additionally, make sure that you partner with stakeholders across the entire value chain. To be successful in this industry, you need do whatever you can to facilitate communication across the board so that the whole ecosystem can work together.

What’s next for your company? 

We have a few exciting projects in development. As I mentioned earlier, we have partnered with Landsec, who has adopted our technology in a building of theirs on London’s Victoria Street. Landsec has invested in approximately 24 million square feet of real estate in the UK alone. This presents a game-changing opportunity for these potentially BrainBox AI-optimized buildings to work dynamically together with the local electrical grid operator and grid provider, staggering each building’s energy consumption to avoid peak times when electricity is dirtier and more expensive. Doing so would lower each building’s carbon emissions and could even become an additional revenue stream for the building owners. Zooming out, this digitization of demand management, where grids can cooperate with networks of buildings to optimize energy consumption, could work on a community and city-wide level. This would go a long way towards achieving net zero.

 

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