game changer

Tech company uses machine learning to buy homes in Houston

This Houston company has the key to a more exact searching process when it comes to finding a new home to buy. Courtesy photo

For most consumers, the home buying process includes a very specific online search. People specify their neighborhood requirements, the number of bedrooms or bathrooms, backyard size, and more — yet still, the search results in a staggering amount of homes. It's way more than anyone can reasonably look at.

That's where Martin Kay and Entera Technology, the company he founded and is CEO of, come in. Kay, a 20-year veteran of the tech sector, who's bought multiple homes as rental properties, realized the way to solve the problem of that kind of search engine overload was through machine learning. He now works with some of the largest home-buying companies in the world, helping them find properties that match the specifications they have to attract the clients they want.

"All residential real estate is a consumer product," he says. "Ultimately, the people who are going to live in that home care most about, is it a nice home with a big backyard neat good schools, is it safe? The [home buying] companies are trying to figure out what do the end consumers really care about so we can give them exactly what they need?"

To do so, Entera collects data — lots and lots of it. Kay and his team have taught their software programs what a chef's kitchen is, for example. They did so by compiling tens of thousands of photos of kitchens and telling the software, "This is a kitchen." Then, they taught it to recognize what makes a chef's kitchen — a larger size, more than one sink, high-end appliances. They used the same techniques in identifying things like millennial-friendly neighborhoods or neighborhoods that were up-and-coming on the real estate scene. They draw from listings available with the Houston Association of Realtors and beyond, a vast array of tens of thousands of homes.

Officially launched in 2017, Entera blends its data collection and analysis with on-the-ground service. After Entera's proprietary software collects what it thinks home-buying companies want, members of Entera's service team go out to look at the homes.

"We're a little bit like Netflix," he says. "They go out and get content from everyone, and they begin to watch your behavior. So, Netflix has 2,000 profiles and you probably fit five or six of those. We have almost 100 profiles and what we do is say, we're going to understand what you want, watch your behavior and instead of giving you 40,000 properties on a big map, we actually match you based on your preferences, to the five or six houses that are best for you."

While Entera has been working with larger home-buying companies — like firms that buy tens of thousands of homes every year — Kay says they have begun working with smaller entities, and he figures within the next few years, Entera will be using the same data collection and machine learning to work with individual home buyers.

Based in Houston, Entera has operations in New York and San Francisco as well. The company has 17 full-time employees, along with approximately 100 contractors in its markets. And while Kay understand a human touch is needed in business, he loves that he can use a data model to present unbiased opinions to his clients.

"[Real estate] actually affects people's lives meaningfully," Kay says. "Real estate data — where you live, what your neighborhood is, how you make that choice — …this data matters to people in a way they can tangibly touch and understand and feel. We can help people make what are big, complex choices that are often highly ambiguous. I love it because it matters. You can measure how it matters immediately."

Data-driven tech

Courtesy of Entera

Entera focuses on collecting data and analysis and pairs it with on-the-ground service. After Entera's proprietary software collects what it thinks home-buying companies want, members of Entera's service team go out to look at the homes.

Natalie Goodman founded Incentifind, which connects home builders and commercial developers with green incentives. Courtesy of Incentifind

When asked about the origin story of IncentiFind — a Houston-based startup that connects real estate developers and home builders with green construction incentives — founder Natalie Goodman doesn't mince words.

"We're a complete accident," Goodman says. "I'm an architect. We didn't set out to have a startup."

IncentiFind's mission is to increase the amount of green developments and construction projects in the U.S. The company is equipped with a massive database of green incentives that are offered by utility, county, city, state and federal agencies. Many home builders or commercial developers don't take advantage of green incentives because they're simply not aware of them, Goodman says.

"The government is strapped — they have all this money that they want to give away, but not the (marketing) money to get the word out," Goodman said. "That's where IncentiFind stepped in."

Goodman said IncentiFind's goals differ slightly for commercial and residential developers. For commercial developers, the database is built to be simple, predictable and intuitive. For home builders, the model is to make IncentiFind as simple and inexpensive as possible, since new homeowners are already shelling out cash for home improvement projects.

Commercial developers can expect to spend around $1,500 with IncentiFind, while homeowners can expect to spend between $50 and $150.

By tapping into IncentiFind's resources, Goodman says that clients can expect up to a tenfold increase on their investment with IncentiFind — all while developing in an environmentally conscious way.

An 'overnight' surge in demand
Goodman started building the infrastructure for IncentiFind several years ago, and long before she thought she'd one day be running a startup. She was a sustainability architect, living overseas and seeing that green architecture was far more common around the world than it was in the U.S.

Once she returned to the U.S., Goodman called a good friend at the Department of Energy, and asked where she could find a central database for green construction incentives in the U.S. She was told that a central database didn't exist, and probably never would.

"So, I created it selfishly just for me," Goodman says. "I thought [that I was] going to have this tiny little architecture firm, and we're going to do all things green."

At that time, several outdated incentive databases were still funded by public agencies. But at the end of 2017, a massive defunding of databases meant that Goodman's resource was the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Following the defunding of those databases, Goodman saw a surge of activity to her website from people who used to rely on those databases as go-to resources.

"Overnight, we saw that traffic come to us," Goodman says. "We didn't do any marketing — it was all organic. People were desperate to find this information. We weren't high on Google."

From Houston, to Austin, to Houston again
From there, Goodman decided to take her database to the next level. Six employees were hired, and in April 2018, IncentiFind officially launched in Austin in The Capital Factory, a major startup incubator. Goodman and the IncentiFind team were commuting from Houston. She wanted to launch the business in Houston, she said, and while there were a lot of exciting developments underway at Station Houston, Houston's startup scene was still clouded with uncertainty.

"There's already so much instability with a startup, and we can't surround ourselves with more instability," Goodman said.

IncentiFind graduated from The Capital Factory's startup accelerator in August 2018. From there, IncentiFind landed at The Cannon, and is continuing to grow in Cannon Ventures. In less than twelve months, Goodman said she's seen Houston's startup scene undergo a nearly 180-degree shift, in large part due to the growth of The Cannon.

"I truly think that they're going to put Houston on the map for a radically new service, because they'll actually roll up their sleeves and do work with you," Goodman said. "[They'll do more] than just send you links or give you 15 minutes to ask someone a question. They'll give you all the time in the world, and [give] as many hours as you want."