A deep science platform tool that calculates the requirements for construction projects anywhere in the world in real time is transforming the building approval process, saving the construction industry, home renovators and local governments significant time and money.
The story of uDrew – a Western Australian start-up reinventing the building approval process – starts with revenge.
It was 2008 and Tom Young had just finished a four-year renovation on his home in Perth. All that remained was the front fence.
A geotechnical analyst and systems engineer who had qualified as a structural draftsperson while still at school, Young submitted his plans for the “unexciting” structure.
It took the local council seven months to consider the “straightforward” application and when approval was finally granted, his street name was spelt incorrectly in the paperwork. This error took another four months to fix.
“Altogether it took more than a year to build my little fence, and it just blew my mind,” he says. “And I thought if someone like me who has some knowledge of the industry is having so much trouble, what chance do others have?”
Driven by this frustration, he drew upon his engineering and geotechnical knowledge, and passion for science to shake up – and simplify – the system. “There are all these interconnected processes that are repeated throughout the whole approval exercise. It just seemed ridiculous to me, and so I started mapping it out,” he says.
Next stop, Mars
In his job Young was responsible for calculating the footings and foundation requirements for buildings based on analysis of the subterranean profile of the site.
He started digitising information on the core samples he was collecting and by 2016, after cross-referencing some 5000 lab-tested samples with data freely available on Google Earth, he had created a world-first geotechnical database that would form the basis of uDrew – the start-up he would found a year later.
On a shoestring budget and unable to afford a software engineer, he then taught himself coding, transforming his database into a neural network capable of calculating the footing and foundation requirements for particular locations.
Today, that groundwork – propelled by an Accelerating Commercialisation grant under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme, a Curtin University Ignition program scholarship and a re-mortgaged house – has evolved into a sophisticated cloud-based platform serving the entire construction pipeline.
Harnessing the power of AI, the uDrew suite of products can crunch millions of points of geological and regulatory data to streamline the building approvals process anywhere in the world.
“We could actually set up on the moon or Mars if we wanted to but the market’s not great there at the moment,” he says. “We’re waiting for Elon to hurry up with that.”
Planning advice in an instant
Young explains that the technology can be applied so widely because of the way the unique engines were developed.
“Essentially we taught it the recipe for dirt,” he says of the AI module that was trained using his initial database, spatial and satellite data, and a host of free resources taking into account millions of years of geological evolution including the impact of tectonic plate movement and climate change. “And while we haven’t tested every region in the world, we’re getting 91.5% accuracy where we have made the correlation.”
Complementing this ‘geo’ module in the uDrew AI engine is a ‘rules’ module. Capable of determining how environmental laws and building codes from all levels of government relate to any type of construction in any given location, it provides accurate advice in real time on regulatory requirements and potential solutions, no matter how complex or simple.
Accessible online, uDrew products are being used across the construction industry – from individual home owners and multimillion-dollar building industry companies checking compliance and finalising plans at one end, to local governments streamlining the approvals process at the other.
“You can just log into the platform, upload your design and it will tell you what the requirements are,” says i4 Connect Commercialisation Facilitator Natasha Teakle, who guided uDrew through the Accelerating Commercialisation process.
Grant helps create a bigger market
Young says the $508,567 Accelerating Commercialisation grant the start-up received in 2020 was instrumental in the evolution of the uDrew platform that was officially launched in October 2022.
The grant allowed the team to undertake extensive testing, identify and address limitations, and broaden its value proposition.
Initially designed to partner primarily with local governments to transform their approval processes, the COVID-driven restrictions encouraged the uDrew team to broaden their customer base. So they re-engineered their technology and came up with new products “full of micro-services” for industry and home owners.
“It’s multiplied our potential market significantly and, without the Accelerating Commercialisation grant, we wouldn’t have had the resources to do it,” he says.
The reporting requirements that came with the program also improved the company’s internal processes and governance, he says. “As technical people and dreamers, we like to be in the trenches building and doing things a million miles an hour, but it helped us reflect a lot more,” he says.
It didn’t hurt that they were working with Teakle who, he says, was a “fantastic” support on-call for guidance and advice and who provided several meaningful introductions to industry and local government.
Industry and government sign-up for novel technology
Teakle already knew of uDrew when she became their Accelerating Commercialisation facilitator in 2020.
Two years earlier she had been on the judging panel that crowned the “superstar start-up” the Western Australian ‘Innovator of the Year’ in the state’s annual awards.
“They were a clear stand-out,” says Teakle, who has a background in scientific research and commercialisation. “They had highly novel technology, a strong value proposition for their customers and a potentially large market.”
Today that market includes six local councils that have signed up to access the uDrew service, including trial partner the City of Wanneroo in Western Australia. Another 50 local governments have registered interest and talks are underway with a large, amalgamated council in the UK, as well as in New Zealand.
From industry, more than 100 clients across the construction sector include builders, suppliers and engineering and design companies, as well as a major pool manufacturer.
Business is booming, so much so that the company launched a fundraising round early in 2023 to support the rapid growth. “We needed a cash injection to get more customer support people because we just couldn’t handle the pipeline,” Young says. “But it’s a good problem to have.”
Refining its commercialisation strategy through the Accelerating Commercialisation service has been critical to the company’s success, Young says.
And although it was developed with the construction industry as its “entry point”, he says the technology could be of significant benefit to other sectors. This is because the ‘rules’ module can be configured with any set of regulations or processes, for any location-based context.
“We’re in talks with the financial and insurance sectors and there’s a lot of potential in mining and agriculture, looking at soil and where to best plant crops and how to get the most efficiency,” he says.
“This is the tip of the iceberg of the 10-year plan, and there’s a lot more on the agenda. We’ve now got an extremely solid company that has been very thoroughly tested, hardened and ready to take on the world.”