The commercial real estate giant JLL has set up a new business unit to incubate technology and startups to solve the biggest pain points its customers face in the digital world.

Inside JLL's new proptech incubator programme Spark

Chicago-based commercial real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) is looking to develop proptech products and startups within a new business unit called Spark, based out of JLL’s San Francisco office and under the tutelage of two Silicon Valley veterans: Mihir Shah and Yishai Lerner.

Spark has been established by JLL as an independent unit in California to “ensure that JLL and its clients benefit from technology-driven transformation by building a team that will create new products, make strategic investments and incubate proptech startups,” according to the official press release.

Mihir Shah, an ex-product manager at Yahoo and an early investor in Uber, brings a number of classic Silicon Valley skills to his role as co-CEO of the Spark project.

Speaking to Computerworld UK over the phone he said that his first task is to “look at the wide landscape of the commercial real estate industry and understand the clients, landlords, brokers, tenants and occupiers. We then need to figure out where the biggest pain points or opportunities for technology to have a big impact are”.

Next he and Lerner will look to build a team out, capable of “building products internally, make strategic investment in startups dealing with those issues, or incubate entrepreneurs working on things in those spaces to give them the resources and help them grow”.

Spark will look to behave like a Silicon Valley company, “so the culture of building a tech startup is all around us”, Shah said. “We are familiar with how to build a culture and a product, and we will leverage that playbook and bring it to JLL Spark.”

In short: “We are here to create new, bigger technology businesses for the company,” Shah said.

In terms of potential areas of focus, Shah has his eyes on virtual reality (VR), IoT and big data. He explained: “It’s too early to say what we decide will be a focus, but as I learn about the industry there is technology to create easy-to-consume virtual tours of offices, tech for smarter buildings and tech for taking the data available and creating better models for valuing things.”

When it comes to selecting proptech startups to bring into Spark, Shah says the qualifiers are the same for any sector. Shah looks for: “A big market, I want them to have already achieved product market fit from a metrics perspective, and founders who are able to adapt and evolve is extremely important.”

Eventually, Spark will have to deliver some ROI to a company with annual revenues hovering around $7 billion, and Shah is aware that he can’t eat up resources like some Valley companies do. “Down the road it is about creating value from the investments we make and the revenue we generate,” he said. “We’re not just here to be consulting or for pontification. The aim of Spark is to create value for JLL.”

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