By Rahul Kalvapalle
When you think of industries that are being disrupted by technological innovation, fence installation and driveway construction don’t immediately leap to mind.
Jiayue (Jenny) He (EngSci0T3 + PEY) is looking to change that. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Ergeon, a Silicon Valley startup that’s transforming how outdoor home construction and renovation services are delivered.
Ergeon uses video calls and satellite imaging to conduct remote assessment of clients’ properties, before sub-contracting the labour to skilled contractors — essentially owning the process end-to-end. Founded in 2018, the company has completed over 8,000 projects in California alone (it also operates in Texas) and has raised nearly $35 million from investors.
“We’re trying to empower the world to build,” says He, who earned her Bachelor of Applied Science from the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto.
“We’re trying to take a pretty traditional industry — construction is one of the oldest industries since the beginning of time, as long as people have had houses — and bring in innovation, transparency and more access.”
Ergeon is one of more than 400 promising startups that have played a role in U of T’s status as the fastest riser in the 2021 PitchBook rankings for undergraduate programs, which rank universities on how many undergraduate alumni become founders of venture capital-backed companies.
U of T leapt to 27th from 33rd in the rankings last year. The rankings consider companies that received a first round of venture funding between January 2006 and November 2021 — a period in which companies founded by U of T undergraduate alumni raised over $17 billion.
The biggest fundraisers include AI research company OpenAI, enterprise software firm Databricks and pharmaceutical firm Moderna — which is now a household name thanks to its ubiquitous mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine.
He says her time at U of T Engineering was foundational to what she went on to achieve. That includes getting comfortable with numbers and instilling a data-driven approach to problem-solving and decision-making. She adds that her engineering education also helped her hone the ability to structure and solve problems.
“I find that universally applicable, no matter what kind of problem I’m solving,” He says.
She also credits the Faculty’s Professional Experience Year Co-op Program (PEY Co-op) with an all-important first exposure to Silicon Valley, where she worked for a semiconductor company.
“That made it very easy for me to make the decision a few years ago to move out here,” she says.
She launched Ergeon after recognizing the home renovation and construction sector needed to become more customer-friendly and transparent — as any homeowner can probably attest — as well as her observation of there being a lack of technology to facilitate skilled blue-collar work.
She says clients have largely embraced the novelty of remote video and satellite-based assessments, but a bigger challenge — especially early on — was convincing workers in the skilled construction trades to interact with a tech startup.
“We literally make our app look like texting because that’s what they’re OK with,” He says. “We make all the interfaces look much more old-school — our interface looks like a calendar because that’s in their comfort zone.”
Ergeon has also had to adapt to several non-tech challenges, including the volatility of lumber prices.
“Lumber has been oscillating as wildly as Bitcoin, so that’s been the biggest challenge we’ve had to manage,” He says, adding that the issue has forced Ergeon to take greater control of its supply chain and ordering processes, which has paid off in other ways.
By contrast, when it came to scaling her company to match a rapid uptick demand, He says she found herself better prepared than most. That’s because her previous job at EZ Home, a startup that offers lawn care and yard maintenance services, ballooned from about 10 employees to 250 over a period of just three years.
“When I started Ergeon I wanted to do a lot of things with scalability in mind much earlier,” He explains. “So, we made a few decisions including having super-clear company values and investing in scalable processes and tools from day one.”
She adds that Ergeon’s status as a fully remote operation has also helped the scaling process — and gave the company a head start adapting to the pandemic. As a result, Ergeon this year became one of 32 new U of T entrants in the PitchBook rankings — and among the top three raisers of venture capital in the group.
Going forward, He says she envisions Ergeon progressing from outdoor projects to servicing “the whole home.”
“We started with outside the home first since that’s where technology has the biggest power to do remote assessments, etc.” says He. “But with the latest iPhone, you can now do that much better inside as well.”
“I think we’re just a few years away from that being pretty common and ubiquitous.”
Interested in entrepreneurship? Check out the upcoming U of T Entrepreneurship Week.