At her core, Chloe Smith is a “Why?” person. “I’ve always sought out knowledge,” she says. That internal drive to ask questions has followed her into her career. She built a niche for herself in PR by helping companies answer the question: What’s the impact of our efforts and how does that measure up in the market? She pulled off that feat by building data analytics teams that could answer those questions in concrete terms.
Those answers prompted her to ask another question: How could data analytics transform the construction industry? Smith comes by her interest in construction naturally. It’s a family business, one she grew up watching her father excel at. “I thought to myself: Here’s a fantastic opportunity for us to take a similar concept but apply it in a traditional environment.” The construction industry relies on relationships and word-of-mouth to attract business. She knew AI could offer the companies an edge by giving them a heads up on potential new business as soon as the land sales documents were filed or permits secured.
In 2020, alongside COO Hogan Lee, she founded Mercator AI, a platform that analyzes information related to commercial and industrial projects, from land purchase agreements to design plans. It then feeds those details back to contractors, real estate brokers and building product manufacturers in the specific terms they request. The technology puts the industry’s lead time into hyper-speed and can reduce months of legwork down to a handful of clicks. “There isn’t anything else like us. We are creating a category for industry intelligence in construction.”
Here, Smith talks about the challenges facing the construction industry and how AI could help.
What problem does Mercator AI solve for the construction industry?
The first product we are developing is an early construction project detection tool for general contractors, building product manufacturers and real estate brokers. We call it a real-time construction intelligence platform. Over the past 10 or 20 years, we’ve seen quite a bit of growth in the number of players in the industry. At the same time, we are seeing a historic shift as a massive workforce starts to retire. One of the challenges is that younger folks are stepping into business development roles who may not know all the players, but they’re still saddled with the challenge of maintaining revenue growth. Their challenge is to get to know everybody in the market, know who’s doing what work — and when — and get in front of those projects at a stage where they can make an impact.
Were you always interested in tech?
I was a “Why?” child. I always wanted to know more. I’ve always sought out knowledge. That translated to a career in uncovering more knowledge. I went to university for public relations and one of the important parts of PR is tracking impact. When I stepped into my first job, my biggest question was, do we know the impact of the work that we’re doing? If somebody spent $10,000 with us, do we know that we make them $100,000 in return? And the answer was, no. That’s when I started building out analytics and really digging into how we understand the impact of what we’re doing.
What led you to start Mercator?
My background is data strategy. I spent a lot of my career air-dropping into businesses, trying to understand what kind of data they have and how they’re using it to achieve their business goals. I learned early on that companies spend a lot of time analyzing their own businesses. But they weren’t looking closely at understanding themselves within the market.
When I was a former head of innovation working with a global marketing advertising agency, we were working with their business development team to build products so that we could step into a new market, understand it very quickly, and then pitch effective strategies that were going to help introduce that brand. And I thought: There’s a fantastic opportunity to take that concept but apply it in a traditional environment.
Having come from a construction family and grown up listening to my father talk about the quality and the value of his relationships, I realized that there’s a very real threat to a business when its market knowledge is tied to a person and not a company. That’s when we started to think about how we can take this external data and educate the business about what’s going on, so that they can start to take control of how they want to be positioned within the industry.
How does the technology work?
We are collecting data that gets created along the lifecycle of a plot of land. So anywhere from land transaction records all the way through to permits to improve commercial retail spaces. Our AI stitches all that activity together and determines what stage a project is at and who’s involved.
Users can scan through the list, click the project details, find out who else is involved and then click all the way through to those companies, so that they can see what else that business is working on, get contact details and see trends related to that company. This allows them to have more educated conversations. Normally, it takes four to six weeks to find out all that information. We’re doing it for them within five clicks. We are basically digitizing word of mouth in construction.
What has the response been like?
One of the things I learned early on was that if we can introduce the product with the value first, how it’s done is less important. The AI aspect of what we do is definitely a draw for people because they see it in their day-to-day lives — we all use Netflix and Spotify. We are getting an incredible amount of support from folks that have been in industry for 20 to 30 to 40 years because they see the opportunity here. There’s a learning curve, but I think that the value that we’re providing kind of outweighs the ‘OK, how do I work with AI?’
MaRS commissioned photographer Jenna Marie Wakani to photograph the thinkers, entrepreneurs and investors behind some of Canada’s most exciting companies. See the full portrait series here.
Photo credit: Jenna Marie Wakani