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FEATURED FEMMES INTERVIEW WITH KITTY SULLIVAN FROM JLL SPARK VENTURE FUND

Interviewed on July 16, 2021

Interviewed by Yingying Zhu

 

Kitty Sullivan is a principal at JLL Spark, a strategic venture fund that invests in early stage proptech companies. She previously worked at carpooling startup Scoop, LinkedIn, and management consultancies Bain & Company and Monitor Group. She is passionate about mentoring and collaborating with startups of all sizes on strategy, business ops, and growth. She has a B.A. from Bowdoin College and an MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.


As a principal at JLL Spark, can you tell us about JLL Spark’s role under the whole JLL and JLL Technologies umbrella? JLL Spark is the strategic venture arm of JLL, which, as most people know, provides global commercial real estate services. JLL Spark’s sole LP is JLL, and we invest in early stage real estate technologies that have strategic alignment with JLL. Following successful investments in a number of portfolio companies, JLL recognized the opportunity to make an even greater impact, and Mihir Shah and Yishai Lerner—the original co-CEOs of JLL Spark—created JLL Technologies to consolidate all innovation efforts and domain expertise scattered across the organization. JLL Spark now sits under JLL Technologies.


What’s your role at JLL Spark? I am a principal on the venture fund. I focus on identifying new opportunities, conducting due diligence, building relationships with founders, negotiating transaction terms and post-investment management.


“There are very few competitors, even other strategic investors, that have both JLL’s scale and hands-on approach to help startups continue to grow. As a result, we have been fortunate enough to get into popular rounds even when they are oversubscribed.”

What makes JLL Spark different from other proptech venture funds? There are very few competitors, even other strategic investors, that have both JLL’s scale and hands-on approach to help startups continue to grow. As a result, we have been fortunate enough to get into popular rounds even when they are oversubscribed.


One of JLL’s advantages is the brand value that JLL and JLL Spark have established, for which there is no shortage of inbound deal flow from the best and brightest startups. During the diligence process, we have the opportunity to tap into many buildings that we internally manage and a great number of brokers, clients and domain experts that we work with to pilot and evaluate technologies. JLL alone has 90,000 people and a huge number of clients through all business lines, so it would be challenging for an early stage startup to independently navigate and address the synergies we identify in the diligence phase. JLL Spark has a unique and vital growth team that is responsible for driving success and growth of our portfolio companies across JLL and its clients. This growth team serves as the bridge between portfolio companies and JLL business lines by setting up pilots, arranging reseller agreements and making client introductions. Last but not least, JLL Spark sits high up in the organization. Our co-CEOs Mihir and Yishai report directly to JLL’s global CEO, Christian Ulbrich, which provides necessary top-down support for the investment and growth initiatives we are targeting.


What is the typical deal size and focus of your investment? JLL Spark generally invests in Seed through Series B rounds. Our investments reflect JLL’s priorities and areas where the company plays, covering almost all asset types including office, retail, industrial and some multi-family. We are in the process of refreshing our focus areas based on the historical performance of our investments and the trends that we are seeing in the market post COVID.


How do you evaluate a potential investment against its peers in the same sector? We typically look at four factors, the first three applying to general VC investments and the last one to JLL specifically: size of the market or TAM (total addressable market); the founder’s X factor beyond baseline intelligence, such as resilience, humbleness and open-mindedness; product market fit represented by customer acquisition speed and retention rate, customer references, and Net Promoter Score; and JLL strategic fit.


Can you give an example of an investment your team made? One of our portfolio companies is called Turntide (turntide.com). It is an extremely efficient, software-driven electric motor technology that can drive 30% or more in energy savings, which translates to huge operating savings and sustainability benefits for building owners and operators. After meeting with Turntide’s founding team and hearing the amazing claims of their products, we installed three Turntide Smart Motors in one of our buildings to help us get conviction. The retrofit delivered over 35% saving in annual kWh consumption, along with remote monitoring and control capabilities and benefits contributing to JLL’s 2030 sustainability goals. We not only invested in Turntide but are also actively deploying them at scale via our Property Management services line.

How do you execute pilot programs? It varies by individual solutions. Sometimes there is no need or time to do a pilot, for example, when it is a highly sought-after deal and we only have a couple of weeks to make decisions, or when it is a pure SaaS product with fewer unknowns for implementations. When there is the need to pilot, we still move quickly, fighting the reputation that corporate VCs sometimes get for being slow moving. Often times, we have established diligence partners within the organization or identified a few clients who have clear interest in trying out a certain type of solution. In those cases, we will initiate the pilot quickly for the early adopters before an investment commitment.


How do you view the competitive landscape of proptech investing as we recover from the pandemic? A recent report released by JLL suggests that proptech investment is holding strong. According to our data, the first half of 2021 was the most active on record at more than $9.7 billion in funding activity. Zooming out beyond proptech to general VC deal activity, the level of capital deployment and valuation remains high. The good-quality deals will always be sought after.


What are some of the areas that are valuable but you haven’t seen great solutions for? HVAC optimization is not a particularly fancy field, but it is an incredibly fragmented landscape with many solutions claiming to deliver similar improvement on tenant comfort and energy efficiency. It is a huge market, with commercial buildings being one of the largest energy users and HVAC using the most energy within them. But most solutions stop at surfacing actionable insights for property managers to go in and manually adjust building systems. Some AI-based hardware-software solutions that start to emerge on the market are much more exiciting when they can autonomously communicate with and control building systems while minimizing required human interference.


JLL raised a $100M venture fund and has invested in more than two dozen portfolio companies across many sectors. What is next for JLL Spark? We raised the $100M fund in 2018, and we continue to put money into it as JLL’s commitment to improve business efficiency and lead industry innovation grows even stronger. We have made 30+ investments and counting. We also recently brought in Raj Singh from JetBlue Technology Ventures as our new managing partner to lead further team growth and geographic coverage expansion.


You worked at LinkedIn and Scoop before entering the proptech industry. How does that experience help you today? I was leading a talent solution strategy project at LinkedIn, where I was essentially influencing change in a large organization like what I am doing today at a corporate VC. After several years, I felt that I had gained experience working for a stabilized technology company and wanted to go somewhere early stage and less structured. I joined Scoop, a shared commute company, as chief of staff and got multi-faceted exposure to operations and strategic growth while Scoop grew from a Series A to a Series B startup. Today, this experience helps me empathize with the other side of the table, who may have very limited resources, ever-changing plans and competing priorities.


What has been the biggest challenge working for a corporate VC? Because strategic fit is key for all of our investments at JLL Spark, I need to get my arms around who the right JLL stakeholders are and how to win their support before committing to an investment. It can be tricky but very important to balance the tension between moving fast enough to close the deal but not too fast for sufficient core business buy-in.


Any female tech founder or investor you would like more people to know about? Last year, we invested in Saltmine (saltmine.com), a SaaS solution for workspace design and build, led by Shagufta Anurag. It is amazing to identify an extraordinary entrepreneur and work along with her to solve an important issue which is to create a high-quality, flexible and data-driven workplace design process.


Edited and condensed for clarity.

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