From the pyramids to the Empire State Building, the world’s largest structures have typically been financed by the superrich. New York-based Prodigy Network, best known for marketing the Trump SoHo hotel condominium, is now trying a different model: It’s bringing crowdfunding to real estate, soliciting thousands of investors to buy slices of a skyscraper in exchange for a share of rents and property appreciation. “The big difference from traditional real estate is that instead of buying into a fund with a pool of assets, people invest in a single asset,” says Rodrigo Niño, Prodigy’s founder and chief executive officer. “It lets them control the risk.”
Prodigy has wanted to try crowdfunding almost since its founding seven years ago but didn’t get a chance until it stumbled on the derecho fiducario, a little-known financial instrument in Niño’s native Colombia that allows individual investment in isolated real estate projects. In Colombia, Prodigy has crowdfunded a building called BD Bacatá that will be the nation’s tallest. About 3,100 investors kicked in $171.8 million (COP308 billion) of the $239 million needed to build the 66-story skyscraper in downtown Bogotá. Investors can also buy and sell shares through a resale program, which functions like a secondary market.
Prodigy is currently under contract to buy 84 William Street in downtown Manhattan for $58 million. It plans to invest an additional $32 million. Prodigy says it intends to raise some $26 million in equity from individual investors in 11 countries. FTI Consulting, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., will ensure that Prodigy complies with the U.S. tax code, as well as anti-money-laundering laws, when accepting money from outside the country. “Instead of buying crappy condos in South Florida, this allows international investors to invest in real markets like New York and in assets that actually make sense,” says Niño, who was raised in Colombia and studied economics in Switzerland. Prodigy says William Street investors will see returns of 15 percent, compared with 21 percent for investors in BD Bacatá.
The company’s investors don’t yet include Americans because the U.S. allows only accredited investors—generally those who have assets of more than $1 million—to buy equity in private firms. That will soon change: The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, signed into law last April, allows anyone to invest as much as $2,000 or 5 percent of their income or net worth, whichever is greater, in closely held ventures. The Securities and Exchange Commission is still working on rules for investor safeguards required by the act.
SEC guarantees may not be enough for leery U.S. investors, says Dan Fasulo, a managing director at Real Capital Analytics. “It’s hard enough to develop a property down the block,” Fasulo says. “How are you going to do it sitting 3,000 miles away?”
Gustavo Gonzalez, a Colombian civil engineer who bought two shares of BD Bacatá in 2010 for 101 million pesos ($57,178), says the returns speak for themselves. Since his purchase, based on an advertisement he read in a local newspaper, the shares have appreciated by about 43 percent. “I like the idea that this is going to be the highest building in the country,” he says. Just as important, “I thought it was going to go up a lot, and that’s what happened.”
The bottom line: Once the SEC finalizes its safeguards, ordinary American investors will be able to buy a slice of individual properties.