How a Startup Founded by Two Immigrants is Digitising Sweden’s Entire Built Area
In 2011, a civil war completely changed my life plans. I was in my third year of studying architecture and urban planning at Arab International University in Damascus, Syria. Five years later, I found myself sitting in a refugee camp in a small village in Sweden, called Siljansnäs, wondering "What is next?".
Architect, Urban Planner, or Data Visualiser
A few months after my walking journey to Sweden ended, I managed to convince an architecture firm, agnasARK in Leksand to hire me. They weren't exactly sure what my role would be, but they were impressed by my architectural 3D modelling skills and thought, 'Why not give him a chance?
I ended up working on projects of various scales, from designing summer houses to master planning a ski resort with hotels, restaurants and 1,000 new residential units, but what truly caught my interest was understanding how real estate development works in Sweden. That's when the idea to start my own company was born.
Meeting Alexandra - 'I Have Big Dreams Too'
We were both invited to speak at the same event hosted by Leksands Kommun, to share our experiences integrating into the Swedish job market shortly after our arrival in Sweden. As fate would have it, we were seated at the same table. We hit it off instantly, and two months later, on New Year's Eve 2017, I pitched the idea to start a company to Alexandra.
The Idea - 'Communicating Buildings Simplified'
Our vision with the new company was to solve communication problems in complex city development plans and make them accessible to city builders and architects by transforming information from scattered public zoning data stored in PDFs into interactive 3D models. We named our company 'Combify' as a shorthand for 'Communicating Buildings Simplified'.
Our first believer in Combify, Ahmad, joined the team. The three of us began by manually collecting public documents related to ongoing development and zoning work from all 290 municipalities in Sweden. Our goal was to create a map that showcased Sweden's development potential. Once we were done with the first version of our product and had gained good traction from early customers, including Stockholm City, we started contacting investors. We pitched our product as 'The Future Map of Sweden,' a tool that promised numerous opportunities for the real estate development and investment industry by helping to understand the future potential of any site in Sweden.
We soon realised the scale of the task we had undertaken. Although the ongoing developments were a great dataset to start with, our early customers needed more insights to validate the future potential of a site. This led us to understand that 'manual data gathering' was not sustainable if we were to achieve our goal. We needed to digitise all of Sweden's built area in order to increase our added value. Therefore, we had to find a smarter data-gathering method, such as automation and machine learning.
In August 2021, after securing our pre-seed investment from Bonnier Capital, BackingMinds, and VNTRS, we began building a team of data engineers led by our CTO, Petter. After successfully assembling an A-team, we created an algorithm that collects and structures almost all implemented and valid historical development cases from across the entire country. This data is delivered to a dashboard we developed for our human data validators to digitise the gathered documents and then serve them to our end users. It took us two years to develop this, and we still feel we are just scratching the surface when it comes to digitising all the valuable information from the data we gathered. But, we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved so far.
Impact on Sweden
Consistently and steadily, Combify is reshaping Sweden's urban landscape. We are now equipping our customers with the capability to make informed decisions using real-time data. Property developers are optimising their processes in dealing with information that used to be stored in silos pre-Combify, while business professionals such as architects, consultants, and brand expansion managers are gaining a fresh understanding of any site's future opportunities.
A particularly significant case was when a major European infrastructure company employed our platform to improve planning for their extensive infrastructure network in Sweden, revolutionising their planning process entirely. We're not only impacting the way cities are developed; we're also contributing to a more digital, sustainable, and efficient Sweden.
Looking ahead, we aim to expand Combify's reach to rural areas and other Nordic countries. Our vision is to create a global platform that transforms the world's built environment through accessible, real-time data, and driving sustainable development. You'll be able to describe your dream property, and we will literally point it out for you. As we speak, we are working on introducing a groundbreaking type of information that will bring our users one step closer to this visionary goal.
One of our next big steps is the "Shaping Cities" event at Space Arena at SPACE Stockholm on October 6th, 2023. It's a unique event focusing on solutions and innovation in city development, with discussions from policymakers, builders, and solution providers. You can read more about the event here.
Our journey at Combify is an exciting adventure full of creative ideas, successes, failures, hard work, and a stubborn drive to succeed. As immigrants who dared to dream big, we're proud of how we're adding value to our new home, Sweden. We believe that this is just the beginning, and as we continue our journey, we invite you to join us on the road towards a digital future.
The world is our playground, and we were lucky to have Sweden as our starting point. Today, we look forward to sharing our progress with you. Stay tuned and Glad Sommar!