Raffi Holzer – From Bioengineering to Construction Verification
Raffi Holzer, Founder of AVVIR thought he knew exactly where his career path was going to take him, but then he spent a summer at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Lab where he learned about point clouds, structure from motion, and various civil engineering, construction processes. The groundwork was laid.
After the summer internship Raffi returned to pursuing his Ph.D. in bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He was particularly interested in brain computer interfaces, but his summer at CMU had kindled his entrepreneurial spirit and the next thing he knew he was entering a business plan competition involving the use of drones and laser scanning to monitor construction sites. His team came in second. and though he wasn’t yet ready to start a business, the experience caused him to realize research was not for him, so he took his master’s degree and left academia.
At first, Raffi was reluctant to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, so he worked for three years as a product manager at a number of software groups, all the while toying with the idea of starting his own business. He kept thinking about his business plan idea and after three years of being an employee he decided to contact his former adviser at CMU for some advice.
As luck would have it, his advisor was in the process of starting up a new business in San Francisco and he invited Raffi to join him. It was a short-lived venture. Just a few weeks after agreeing to join him, his adviser notified Raffi that he was joining Facebook to take a job that he could not refuse, but at that point it was too late. Raffi was committed to the idea of pursuing his construction monitoring business.
The New Venture is Launched
In the summer of 2017 Raffi attended a real estate meeting where the CEO of a large real estate firm in New York City was speaking. Raffi took the opportunity to introduce himself and explain the concept for his 3D construction monitoring startup. The CEO liked what he heard and connected Raffi with his head of construction management.
A meeting was scheduled for 3 weeks out. At the time, Raffi had nothing to present but he managed to develop a compelling pitch deck and they agreed that Raffi would have six months to deliver a pilot project that would demonstrate the ability of AVVIR to identify building construction elements that were not located according to the plans.
As the months went by the construction firm began to lose interest and eventually backed out of the project. To keep things moving forward, AVVIR agreed to do a pilot project for free – the only free project in the history of the company. That was in October of 2017.
This was followed by a pilot with a large general contractor which taught AVVIR a number of important lessons about working with construction firms. Most importantly was the fact that transparency is not something that contractors necessarily value and that, in general, they did not have a budget for construction verification.
As with most startups, funding soon became a major challenge. Friends and family contributed about $50,000 initially and Raffi invested another $30,000 of his own money. Between January and April of 2018 they were able to secure $650k. That was enough to launch them.
AVVIR’s primary technical vision was to provide automatic comparison of the as-found point cloud with the design BIM. The only problem was in the beginning the software to do this automated comparison didn’t exist, so they had to rely on manual comparison. With the help of a computer vision engineer, Avvir was eventually able to automated this comparison. Now, not only can they do automatic construction verification, but somewhat as a by-product, they can keep the BIM in sync with the as-built condition. This is the idea of creating a digital twin that can be used for long term facility management.
Concerning field data collection, there was an initial debate within AVVIR about whether to use photography or laser scanning. The latter was viewed as being expensive to buy and to use. This resulted in AVVIR investigating mobile scanners as an alternative.
They researched the market and rented some units, but in the end decided that Paracosm’ s PX-80 offered the best value as it only requires one person to rapidly collect 3D data that could be used to produce a colored point cloud with sufficient accuracy and resolution for most applications. This is the result of a combination of a built-in camera and laser scanner.
Once the data is collected, AVVIR’s approach to comparing an as-found point cloud with the design BIM is radically different than other service providers. Most firms approach this task by extracting features from the point cloud and comparing them with the BIM. AVVIR converts the BIM into a point cloud which can then be compared to the raw laser scanned data.
According to Raffi, this novel approach also reduces the need for high density data (in fact, too much data slows down the processing) and high absolute accuracy data as it is working in a machine vision environment, rather than using human visualization that is found in the BIM world. Sounds impressive and certainly unique.
When I asked Raffi about patenting the algorithm, he explained that they were investigating it, but that they were concerned that they would be revealing too much of their proprietary technology by filing a patent application.
Refining the Go-to-Market Strategy for Construction
AVVIR’s value proposition initially focused on two areas – eliminating re-work and providing clients with accurate as-builts. Similar to construction firms, building developers who were not going to become long term owners were not a good fit.
AVVIR is now targeting institutional and corporate real estate owners who appreciate the long term value of monitoring construction progress and in maintaining an accurate digital twin.
More recently AVVIR has added the ability to monitor construction progress. Starting with a 4D BIM the AVVIR services now include the automatic updating of the construction schedule.
In June of 2018 AVVIR was invited to be one of seven companies out of 400 applicants to join the Urban – X accelerator program. This green tech incubator was impressed with the ability of AVVIR to reduce construction waste which is a major issue on most construction projects.
For more information on AVVIR click here.
For more information on the PX – 80 and Paracosm click here.
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