2023.10.03

The Interview – Philippe Obry of Akila

Interview by: Candice Batier and Sully Crevecoeur

Written & edited by: Candice Batier

www.akila3d.com

 

Tell us more about you, the origin of Akila, its main technological innovation, and its roots in China

Akila is a startup that was born and incubated within Aden Group, a French company focused on optimization of the built environment, especially in the APAC market. Aden Group has its roots in facility management, but over time has grown its portfolio into a network of businesses and partnerships which come together to cover the full scope and lifetime of needs for built assets. This includes not only facility services, but also financing, expertise and operational solutions for renewable energy micro-grids, offsite additionality investment, critical technical assets, utilities infrastructure and EV charging.

When Aden Group incubated Akila, the mission was for Akila to play a critical role in the Group ecosystem which had not yet been fully covered: linking and providing the core digital DNA for all the solutions in its business portfolio. As well as that, there was another enormous mission: facilitating rapid and massive digitalization in the construction industry, a sector which ranks bottom three for digitalization and operates within a highly fragmented and traditional ecosystem value chain. Taking into account both construction (12%) and operations (28%), we arrive at a shocking 40% of global carbon being attributable to the built environment. By using Akila to bridge and address the glaring problems in these sectors, we felt we could make an urgent and critical contribution to decarbonization and climate responsivity, as well as the need for greater business efficiency, compliance, ESG reporting and ultimately human well-being.

As Aden enjoys a very strong client base in China, this is indeed one of the regions where we saw our fastest business growth, and where we still operate some of our most notable projects, such as deployment across Ikea China’s 37 property portfolio. At the same time, we have been building a network across Aden Group’s wider APAC network, while also opening offices and our own offices and team for Europe, Africa and North America.

Coming back to origins, the Akila project’s roots go back to 2015 when the first of a number of digital initiatives were kicked off inside Aden Group, eventually coalescing into what became Akila.

Another key milestone was in 2019, when we consolidated a strategic technology partnership with Dassault Systèmes, a leader in software engineering. This connection was seamlessly facilitated due to Dassault’s status as a shareholder in Aden Group. The idea behind the partnership was to leverage Dassault Systèmes’ expertise in digitalizing the manufacturing industry, through the creation of 3D products and design solutions, and apply it to the construction industry. This led to the development of pilot projects in China, such as the digitalization of 700,000 square meters of shopping malls and office buildings in Chengdu. The goal was to demonstrate the potential of Akila’s platform for construction industries and building owners in providing value to the market and improving sustainability and operational efficiency in buildings while following the principles of ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) that have emerged as pivotal drivers in the contemporary business landscape to address and fight climate change.

Following the success of our first project, Aden Group decided to concretely make Akila spin off as a startup within the group in 2021, with the mission of becoming a software provider on the market to help our client face the ESG challenges. The year 2021 was instrumental in laying the groundwork—constructing the organizational framework, assembling a robust R&D team, fine-tuning our go-to-market strategy, and ultimately setting up the company by the end of that year. Fast forward to the present, situated at the inception of 2023, we are in the phase of acceleration of our development in China and outside China.

So just to summarize, it’s a very different business compared to Aden. We have the heritage of Aden, their knowledge, and know-how that we have integrated into our platform. Hence, we equip our clients with the tools to digitize their assets, enabling seamless data transfer and real-time monitoring with the objective of catalyzing building improvements, curbing carbon emissions, and enhancing the occupants’ well-being.

 

 

 

01

Why did you establish the company in China with the HQ in Shanghai?

 

We have always seen China as a fantastic playground for innovation, and this is why we have made Shanghai one of our global hubs alongside the headquarters in Singapore and the teams in Tokyo, Europe and America. For Akila, China is obviously one of our key markets due to its sheer size and its potential to showcase our scalability on a grand scale. Working within China holds a distinctive advantage – it provides a remarkable platform for MNCs to validate their capabilities in terms of EHE (Environment, Health, and Energy) by implementing sub-solution in China, for China, in order to scale up solutions worldwide.

Another pivotal reason behind our emphasis on China is the strategic and historic depth of Aden’s business and client network in China. This synergy is particularly evident in our organizational structure, in which Akila operates as a software company. Firstly, there’s the product definition phase where we meticulously outline the value we intend to offer and the mechanisms through which we’ll deliver this value to the market. This acts as our foundation. Secondly, once the value is distilled into product features, we transition to the development phase where we shape the product which is delivered as a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution. While these two dimensions form the core of our company in terms of size, headcount, and value, our synergy with the broader Aden team is equally integral. Through a dedicated business-tree committee, we collaborate closely with Aden’s business leaders, many of whom are based in Shanghai.

Shanghai is also a very international city with the majority of our clients being concentrated in this dynamic landscape, close to the Yangtze River Delta. Shanghai also possesses an ecosystem of universities and research centers that boosts our capability to capture and attract talents to join our team. And at the beginning of our development, attracting these talents was crucial to consolidate our organization, which is driven by digital twin technology, an innovative and quite disruptive technology driven by data and AI.

 

02

How would you describe Akila’s specific approach to digital twin technologies?

 

Digital twin technology is absolutely at the core of our platform, which, in our cases, serves as a 3D representation of a building – not just for visualization but for understanding its intricate behaviors. This is crucial in an industry traditionally averse to digitalization. Buildings are complex systems, composed of subsystems like ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, and more. Crucially, the digital twin enables us to simulate and understand how these elements interact. It aids in devising strategies for improvement, identifying priorities, and generating vital data. By merging the digital twin with real-world data, we initiate a process of optimization, paving the way for the building’s effective operation.

Our technology is founded on a comprehensive 360-degree approach, structured at a portfolio level. This empowers clients to gain consolidated insights into all their buildings across various scales – country, region, or global. Now, when I look at the market and the competition that we are facing, most companies are very vertical with very specific applications that serve one purpose, whereas we cover many features going from energy, asset management, and maintenance, to well-being, safety, and financial performance. On top of that, when gaps arise, we complement our core functions with secondary solutions provided by third parties.

Another key facet of our engagement involves active participation in organizations and advisory boards focused on evaluating digital twin and smart city initiatives. Presently, the prevailing trend is the development of project-driven solutions. These solutions cater to the needs of individual companies, cities, or districts in China. Our objective, however, diverges significantly. We are committed to creating a scalable product across diverse building types and industries.

 

03

How has Akila adapted to the unique features of the Chinese market in its development, especially given the past few years?

 

Our sustainability ecosystem has grown considerably over the past few years, predominantly with new startups and small to medium-sized companies. However, entering China’s market has been challenging. I cannot say that a lot of companies from outside China start to develop their business in China because of the situation we faced during the last three years with the borders closing.

Another difficulty arises from cybersecurity considerations. Compliance with China’s cybersecurity laws necessitates data localization for SaaS and cloud services. And today, it is not possible to provide services in China if the data remains out of China. This unique context has driven us to focus on localized solutions for China. But as China opens up, we anticipate foreign startups entering the scene, complementing our offerings and potentially integrating into our platform to further enrich our services.

But, we see all of these past challenges as evolutionary advantages for Akila, which have strengthened our offer to the China market and made us more resilient for localization in various markets, while still holding tight to our vision and core solution for the built environment.

 

 

04

Talking about cybersecurity considerations, how does Akila navigate the regulatory and legal landscape in China, especially regarding data compliance?

 

Our sustainability ecosystem has grown considerably over the past few years, predominantly with new startups and small to medium-sized companies. However, entering China’s market has been challenging. I cannot say that a lot of companies from outside China start to develop their business in China because of the situation we faced during the last three years with the borders closing.

Another difficulty arises from cybersecurity considerations. Compliance with China’s cybersecurity laws necessitates data localization for SaaS and cloud services. And today, it is not possible to provide services in China if the data remains out of China. This unique context has driven us to focus on localized solutions for China. But as China opens up, we anticipate foreign startups entering the scene, complementing our offerings and potentially integrating into our platform to further enrich our services.

But, we see all of these past challenges as evolutionary advantages for Akila, which have strengthened our offer to the China market and made us more resilient for localization in various markets, while still holding tight to our vision and core solution for the built environment.

 

05

With China opening up, what would be the tips you would give to new coming ESG companies in China?

 

China’s ESG journey has been gradual but is now intensifying as is the symbiosis between regulations and enterprise policies. Government policies, enterprise initiatives, and city-level efforts are driving China’s ESG progress, starting with energy efficiency optimization, which aligns with cost reduction. This makes China an opportune landscape for us and other tech enablers providing a solution for improved sustainability. For newcomers, navigating this landscape necessitates clear priorities and strategic adaptations while partnering with local entities. Prioritization, selection, and strong local partnerships form the cornerstone for success. Integrating startups into the marketplace has been one of our long-standing objectives for the last four to five years. It aligns with our commitments to foster a robust ecosystem and now that market conditions are shifting, we will continue working on that.