Meet the Canadian innovators behind construction’s digital coming of age

Construction may be a relative latecomer to digitization, but innovative Canadian tech companies are quickly redefining how the industry works

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Eamon O’Rourke grew up in construction. He helped his father renovate houses in Ireland when he was barely old enough to swing a hammer. After a stint in Australia, he settled in Montreal, Canada, where he managed $55 million in construction projects over 18 years. A lifetime in the industry has provided him with deep insights into a general contractor’s woes—and inspired him to team up with fellow co-founders Joelle Chartrand and Devlin Chartrand to create RenoRun, an e-commerce platform for ordering construction materials to job sites.

“Everything we’re doing is to address unmet industry need,” O’Rourke explains. “We’re scratching our own itches.”

Those itches have intensified in the last few years. While construction continues to boom in Canada and around the world, labour shortages and supply chain issues have put strains on the sector. That’s spurring many construction firms to seek ways of working smarter instead of harder—and driving them toward digital solutions.

They have good reasons for doing so. A 2018 study by BDC found that digitally mature companies were more likely to have enjoyed higher sales and profit growth and to have exported than their peers.

It used to be at trade shows you’d see five or six construction tech companies with booths. Now it’s 50 or 60.

“The demand is there and the space is growing,” says O’Rourke. “It used to be at trade shows you’d see five or six construction tech companies with booths. Now it’s 50 or 60.”

Canadian companies are at the forefront of this wave of innovation, bringing solutions that cover the full spectrum of the construction process from planning to resourcing to on-site execution.

Making it simple to staff up a job

Toronto’s Bridgit has been one of the Globe and Mail’s top-growing companies for the past three years. Founders Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake have deep roots in construction: Brodie’s family ran a steel fabrication and demolition business; Lake’s grandfather ran a specialty subcontractor.

Deciding they’d seen enough of workforce management ‘systems’ cobbled together from Excel spreadsheets and whiteboards, they created Bridgit Bench, a cloud-based platform that uses data from previous projects to give contractors a more accurate view of their upcoming labour needs.

In addition to making workforce planning more precise, Bridgit Bench gives construction companies the ability to fine-tune their teams to the specific requirements of each job, and lets them filter worker profiles to match skills to project needs.

The solution also serves as a recruitment and retention tool for companies in a talent-competitive industry. Workers whose profiles indicate a preference for certain types of projects, or who are looking for minimal commute time, can be matched to jobs that suit them—which can keep them coming back.

“That general contractors can promise to keep an eye on someone’s professional experience, and can look out for opportunities that fit their career plans, is compelling for individuals looking to join a new contractor,” says Brodie.

Bridgit’s Mallorie Brodie, CEO and Co-Founder, and Lauren Lake, COO and Co-Founder.

Bridgit’s Mallorie Brodie, CEO and Co-Founder, and Lauren Lake, COO and Co-Founder.

A lightweight way to locate heavy equipment

Like O’Rourke, Brodie and Lake, Kevin Forestell’s construction business tech idea came from real-world experience. Operating alone out of his parents’ minivan, with the back seat removed to make room for a wheelbarrow, Forestell built up a landscape construction company in Guelph. Within 10 years, the business had grown to more than 400 employees and 200 pieces of heavy equipment. He did landscape work in the summer and snow removal in the winter.

“We noticed that some of our equipment was only being used five or seven months a year,” Forestell says. “The rest of the time it was sitting idle.”

That led Forestell and co-founders Tim Forestell and Erin Stephenson to create DOZR, an online platform that connects contractors to the heavy equipment they need for specific jobs—as close as possible to their job sites. Today with more than 30,000 vendors enrolled, DOZR functions almost like a travel booking aggregator, listing all the available suppliers of a given type of equipment in a particular area.

It can take more than a year to get a new excavator. People are shifting toward rentals, and our platform helps maximize the rental supply.

The benefits are twofold: equipment owners, including some of the biggest names in rentals, are able to optimize and monetize the use of their assets, while construction companies get more convenient access to the machinery they need.

Construction is booming, the reno market is exploding, and with supply chain challenges, it’s really hard today to buy new equipment,” says Forestell. “It can take more than a year to get a new excavator. People are shifting toward rentals, and our platform helps maximize the rental supply.”

DOZR co-founders Erin Stephenson, Kevin Forestell and Tim Forestell

DOZR co-founders Erin Stephenson, Kevin Forestell and Tim Forestell. (Photo courtesy of DOZR)

Giving contractors a productivity push

O’Rourke’s goal with RenoRun is similar: to make contractors’ lives easier. In his case, that’s all about eliminating the time that invariably gets lost when skilled tradespeople have to leave the job site to fetch supplies.

“You don’t want to have to send people offsite, not when labour is so stretched to begin with,” says O’Rourke. “Our whole thing was, ‘How can we make this more streamlined to give time back?’”

Eamon O’Rourke, CEO and Co-Founder, RenoRun

Eamon O’Rourke, CEO and Co-Founder, RenoRun. (Photo courtesy of RenoRun)

O’Rourke and Joelle and Devlin Chartrand, staked out big box hardware store parking lots in Montreal to count the number of people in workboots coming for last-minute contracting supplies to get a sense of how much demand there might be for an alternative solution. The need was obvious. So he and RenoRun’s co-founders created an e-commerce platform that fulfills onsite orders for a wide variety of materials.

Today, contractors can get just-in-time deliveries in three ways from RenoRun: via an app, an online store, and a 1-800 telephone number that also offers advice. The company has gone from operating solely in Montreal to serving markets in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

Joelle Chartrand, VP of Culture and Co-Founder, RenoRun

Joelle Chartrand, VP of Culture and Co-Founder, RenoRun. (Photo courtesy of RenoRun)

Investors are responding to the potential

All three companies’ digitally disruptive solutions have captured the imagination of venture capital investors, including BDC Capital and a who’s who of big-name U.S. firms. Bridgit’s $24 million Series B round was co-led by Camber Creek and Storm Ventures. DOZR attracted $27.5 million in Series B funding from investors including Builder’s VC in Silicon Valley. RenoRun’s Series B total was US$142 million, co-led by Tiger Global and Sozo Ventures.

These Canadian companies are disruptive in another way, too. All three are co-founded and co-led by women in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Bridgit’s Mallorie Brodie made the Top 40 under 40 in Canadian Construction while Lake was named in the Best of Canada Forbes Under 30 Innovators list as well as Forbes Manufacturing & Industry 30 Under 30 and the TechWeek 100.

DOZR co-founder and COO Erin Stephenson won the Ontario regional award for Startup Canada Woman Entrepreneur of the Year.

RenoRun’s co-founder Joelle Chartrand is currently VP of Culture at the company, dedicated to creating a dynamic and supportive work environment.

As Forestell puts it: “The industry is on the cusp of all kinds of change.”

Canadian innovators are well positioned to capitalize on that wave of change, according to Jack Fraser, Partner, Growth Venture Co-investment Fund at BDC.

“There is so much talent in Canada, and so much interest among investors to bring new digital solutions to this market,” Fraser says. “We have an opportunity to do this now, and we need to grab hold of it. We at BDC are excited to partner with companies like Bridgit, DOZR and RenoRun and help bring Canadian innovation to the construction sector.”

Learn more about how BDC is investing in innovative Canadian companies.

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