What do commercial real estate, agriculture, and higher education have in common?

They are all ripe for disruption. These industries are admittedly laggards in adapting technology, but times are changing, and these three holdouts are finally coming into the digital age.

1. Commercial real estate

Sparked by the cascade failure of Lehman Brothers and subsequent mass selloff of $4.3 billion in mortgage securities, the commercial real estate (CRE) industry took a beating in the last recession. And it's still recovering. Lack of transparency in property valuations and loan information led to the near death of commercial mortgage backed securities (CMBS) and witnessed a monumental stall in CRE investing. Today, CRE is mounting a comeback, but the industry is still grappling with how to get better clarity into investment decisions. And they know it.

"Corporate real estate is embracing the data evolution," said David Kollmorgen, international director at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate services provider. "Corporate real estate professionals are eager to become data-centric, and companies are investing more in corporate real estate data technologies."

Currently, there are data sources in the industry. Legacy players like CoStar and Trepp both provide core data in their respective niches, but rely on more traditional methods of data collection. CoStar boasts a staff of more than 1,200 who physically make phone calls to gather information.

Fintech startups saw a huge investment windfall of $2.1 billion in 2014. But 2015 is set to exceed that number, and is shaping up to be the Year of Fintech. And CRE newbies like CrediFi are emerging to bring transparency to the CRE market.

"Commercial real estate players are starving for the right data to make smarter investments faster while limiting their risk exposure," said Ely Razin, CEO of CrediFi. "Today, the market is opaque with limited access to select data, and CRE professionals need more. It's not just knowing what your asset is doing--it's what your competitor, your neighborhood, your market are up to as well. In this market, knowledge is a game changer. CrediFi's platform is here to fill that void."

CRE is also getting shook up from crowdfunding sites like AssetAvenue, Fundrise, and RealtyShares that crowdsource CRE deals to those who normally couldn't swim in CRE waters.

Look for startups to play a major role in shaping CRE in the information age.

2. Agriculture

Agriculture, the prehistoric socio-economic platform, hasn't changed fundamentally in thousands of years. Even modern plowing, planting, and harvesting methods are faster, smarter, and cheaper versions of older technology. All that is about to change. With farmers under pressure to deliver better yields while reducing their carbon footprint, agriculture is ripe for disruption. Sand Hill Road seems to feel the same way. The breakout year for "agtech" was 2014, with $2.36 billion in venture money invested.

That's more than fintech saw the same year.

The revolution is not being led by scrappy Silicon Valley startups. Rather, legacy players are plowing ahead into digital solutions for the sector. Agri-giant Monsanto, through a series of acquisitions and a very involved buildout, developed its FieldScripts product, a prescriptive planting solution that employs big-data streams collected and collated from field, soil, weather, and crop data to determine what to plant and when for maximum yields.

"We're very excited about this technology," said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director for congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We'll be able to save input costs, it's good for the environment since you don't need as much pesticides and chemicals, and you can also improve yields by five or 10 bushels an acre."

And yes, there is the usual interesting crop of disruptive startups out there as well. FarmLogs, a freemium big-data provider, competes directly with Monsanto and has already acquired significant market share. Door to Door Organics seeks to disrupt the distribution channel connecting local farmers directly to the end user. Blue River Technology employs imaging and information technology to optimize fields down to the level of individual heads of lettuce--literally. And there's a lot more. Agribusiness is just catching on to the benefits that big data, software, and advanced automation can provide. Watch for agtech to make a deep impact in 2015 and beyond.

3. Higher education

The first university in the Western world was the University of Bologna, founded nearly 1,000 years ago in Italy. Since then, universities have morphed from being places of "knowledge for knowledge's sake" into being a requirement for your career. While the motive for higher education changed, the system itself remains fairly static. Though education has felt the positive effects of technology, universities essentially still operate the same way they did hundreds of years ago. The cost of a university education is increasingly expensive, and it's no longer a ticket to a career. Now more than ever, higher education is poised for disruption.

Back in 2008, two professors at the University of Manitoba in Canada offered their courses online for free. These courses, known as MOOCs (massive online open courses), sparked a wave of for- and nonprofit startups such as Udacity, Coursera, and EdX. However, MOOCs see low participation rates, and people who complete the courses tend to already have degrees.

So where's the disruption? Harvard professor, disruption guru, and The Innovator's Dilemma author Clayton Christensen argues that the biggest potential for disruption looks to come from the unbundling and modularization of education. "Most will evolve hybrid models," he says, "in which universities license some courses from an online provider like Coursera but then provide more specialized courses in person." 

Some examples of these trends are StraighterLine and the Minerva Project. StraighterLine offers courses that count as transferable credit to more than 80 universities--saving students a healthy amount of tuition, and they still graduate from a brick-and-mortar institution. Minerva adheres to strict standards for acceptance just like brick-and-mortar elites. The difference is the experience. Students spend a year at the San Francisco campus, then the decamp to Minerva residences located in various cities around the world. Tuition is a fraction of that at elite universities, and the education is meaningful.

Higher education is at the nexus of overpriced and less valuable. Real, relevant degrees are more accessible and more affordable than ever. Higher education must become part of the movement or be surpassed. The next five to 10 years will prove monumental for the university model.


Bold changes are coming for these fundamental sectors. How we eat, educate, and secure land are being transformed. Technology will undoubtedly transform current models of operation into new ones. Time will tell exactly how that plays out. One thing is for sure--in the coming years none of the above industries will be operating as they do now.

Corrections & Amplifications: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Minerva Project's timeline. After spending one year in San Francisco, students then take up residence in a variety of cities around the world, moving to a new city each semester.