Talking to Air Quality Start-Ups About the Future of Monitoring and Intervention
Nov 08 2023
Co-founded by Paul Finch and Rayan Jawad in 2016, Growth Studio runs a series of start-up accelerators focused on sustainability and environmental health. One of its many programmes is Breathable Cities, which aims to accelerate innovative start-ups in air quality; you can watch a short film of the event here. EnvirotechOnline spoke to this year’s cohort about what the future might hold for air quality monitoring and intervention.
Meet the cohort
In an ingenious twist, fAIR is revolutionizing the indoor air quality landscape through a gamification approach that fosters enduring behavioral change. Recognizing a gap in a market crowded with undervalued products and overlooked possibilities, fAIR steps in to elevate consumer engagement, loyalty, and health outcomes. This platform not only boosts sales for manufacturers but also serves as an invaluable tool for homeowners, businesses, and healthcare institutions seeking to demystify air quality. It connects seamlessly with top-tier air quality sensors, transforming the concept of tracking air metrics into a daily norm as intuitive as counting your steps. Celebrated for its breakthrough, fAIR recently clinched the prestigious innovation award at the 2023 Venturefest South, part of this year's Festival of Innovation.
Persium is at the forefront of urban transformation with its trailblazing Digital Twinning Platform, capable of reshaping cities across the globe. By deploying their state-of-the-art IoT Pods, you can gain granular insights into air quality, visualize pollution in three dimensions, anticipate the outcomes of environmental policies, and monitor the health and economic returns in real time. Strive towards a smarter, cleaner, and healthier city with the Persium AQ Monitoring System – a holistic hardware and software ecosystem designed to redefine air quality surveillance through advanced, hyper-local infrastructure. Addressing the critical drawbacks of conventional monitoring systems – their prohibitive costs, complexity, and cumbersome nature – Persium's innovative approach offers a robust solution. Based in London, UK, this company blends cutting-edge technology with expert consulting to aid in effective policymaking and transparent return on investment calculations, positioning ourselves as a vanguard in pollution modeling, management, and analytics.
Enter Pluvo, a company that has strategically crafted its Pluvo Columns for optimal placement at the epicenters of urban pollution. These installations are more than just fixtures; they're a lifeline, inhaling contaminated air and releasing it back, scrubbed clean by a proprietary three-tiered filtration process that targets particulate matter, noxious gases, and even pathogens like the Covid-19 virus. Beyond their purification prowess, each Pluvo Column is a sentinel of air quality, equipped with advanced sensors that provide real-time feedback on both the unit's efficacy and the ambient air conditions. This data streams continuously to Pluvo’s cloud service, offering stakeholders actionable insights on air quality. With its marriage of cutting-edge purification technology and smart monitoring systems, Pluvo stands as a sentinel of environmental health, contributing to the wellbeing of communities and ecosystems alike.
GoRolloe embodies innovation in the mobility space with its eco-friendly air-purifying solutions. Harnessing the kinetic energy of moving vehicles, GoRolloe's devices capture airborne pollutants effortlessly, providing a greener alternative to traditional filters through biodegradable or reusable materials. The inception of GoRolloe can be traced back to a eureka moment while navigating the streets of London on a bicycle, where the vision to reduce vehicular pollution was born. From a humble bicycle prototype used for meticulous pollution capture research to targeting larger-scale vehicular emissions, GoRolloe has shown commitment to environmental excellence. Their design and experimentation hub is nested within the London South Bank University, leveraging an array of advanced resources.
What, in your opinion, is the most pressing issue in air quality?
Paul Finch, co-founder of Growth Studios: “Inertia and politics. It isn’t being seen, talked about, and worried about in the same way that war, malaria, AIDS, drunk driving is, even though it kills more people than all of those combined each year. We aren’t addressing the root causes, funding is too token, too small, too insignificant.”
Kristen Tapping, founder of GoRolloe: “The most pressing issue is that people have no way of knowing the quality of air around them because air pollution is invisible. If you see a river is filled with plastic pollution or is a strange colour because of bacteria, you know there's something wrong and you can find ways to mitigate the issue. People have zero clue how much pollution is around them, what kind of pollutants there are or what these pollutants do to them. The most harmful particles are the tiny ones that you can't see, so that makes things even more complicated. If people were able to see air pollution, much more would be done about it – at the very least, people could make transport and living decisions based on this information.
“As far as pollution sources outdoors, I see transport as the number one problem, due to the quantity of pollution and the nature of the particles. 30% of PM emissions in urban environments come from the transport sector. Most people think EVs will come in and save the day; they will definitely help with CO2 emissions but will do close to nothing for emissions of particulate matter as a majority are non-exhaust emissions (NEEs). There are other factors to consider including EVs weighing and possibly producing more tyre wear – but on the other hand regenerative braking which should reduce it. It’s a very complicated topic, so let's leave it at that for now.
“People living in urban environments have much higher exposure to air pollution. This is because urban environments typically have heavy stop-and-go traffic producing particles from the acceleration and braking. This is exacerbated by the street canyon (a street lined with buildings) effect: air recirculates in a vortex fashion and as particulate matter is denser than air it accumulates closer to the ground where we humans walk around (shorter people have it worse!). Officials think, "let's add trees that'll fix it!" But that makes it worse as it creates a cap, further preventing PM from escaping. So, basically walking on a sidewalk alongside traffic in a street canyon you will be exposed to high concentrations of PM pollution.
“The size and quantity of particles is one factor in determining how harmful PM is, but the nature is also important. We did a fun test by swiping bus and truck rims for lab analysis and found 70% or more was iron in nature – and yes, that is harmful for humans to inhale. Here is a link to an interesting study showing the toxicity of various particles on the human body.
“While urban sidewalks have high concentrations of PM, it is far cleaner (at least in most European cities) compared to underground trains. All you need to do is take a quality PM sensor down (feel free to borrow one from us) in most stations and you can see the levels are horrifically high and again particles are primarily metal based, highly likely from brake dust. Brake dust particles have remained in those tunnels since the inception of the London Underground – the tunnels and track areas have not been cleaned, ever. Now, you have this accumulation of particles that shoots outwards everything a train comes into the station, like a piston effect, causing resuspension of particles (like turning on a blow dryer on a pile of dust after sweeping). What is sad is that no one has any clue and 99%+ of people/kids don't wear masks. I understand the challenge of making this space clean is not an easy one and will need many solutions and years to implement them, but surely acknowledgement and awareness would be the first step. The only London stations I have seen without issues are the Elizabeth line and, obviously, overground services.”
Alex Wilkinson, co-founder of fAIR: “The most pressing issue in air quality is a realisation that the subject is highly complex. Any parties engaging with it should be mindful that many different actions are required to address it, across a broad spectrum of government, industry, academia, and science, as well as the general public. Since COVID-19 made air quality a ‘popular’ subject matter for thought-leaders to share opinions on, it is very common to hear: “this is the answer.” In reality, far more coordinated inter-disciplinary collaboration is needed.”
Alex Yousefian, co-founder of Persium: “According to the US EPA, every $1 spent on air pollution control yields an estimated $30 in economic benefits. Yet despite this, in the Clean Air Fund’s latest report, it was calculated that in the past 6 years, only 1% of international development funding ($2.5 billion per year) was committed to improving air quality.
“This global lack of funding and attention directed toward tackling pollution represents the most pressing issue in air quality. This scarcity of attention and funding is in part due to pollution's invisibility, which has led to a severe shortfall in global financial support. High levels of pollution frequently take a backseat to more tangibly visual problems that may not have as much of an effect on the world, resulting in insufficient resources to combat pollution's far-reaching consequences.
“Another critical challenge stems from the scarcity of accurate and comprehensive air quality data to make informed decisions. The landscape of air quality is marked by fragmentation, with numerous independent sensor providers, data sources and consultancy firms operating in isolation. This disjointed approach hinders scaling efforts; collaborative endeavours are essential for comprehensive pollution control. As such, policymakers grapple with the uncertainty of not knowing what policies to implement to improve air quality in cities. This absence of dependable information leads to a situation where quantifying the effectiveness of policies is also difficult with a lack of clear return on investment (ROI).”
Matteo Maccario, founder of Pluvo: “In my opinion the most pressing issue in air quality is getting more stringent and enforceable air quality regulation for public and work-spaces passed. Public education about the importance of air quality is a close second (as it’ll also put more pressure on politicians to accelerate regulation adoption).”
What role can start-ups play in the fight against air pollution?
Paul Finch, co-founder of Growth Studios: “Innovate, innovate, innovate. Find new ways of addressing the root causes (the priority) but also keep thinking about ways to limit and remove pollution from existing contributors.”
Alex Wilkinson, co-founder of fAIR: “Start-ups can have an enormous influence in the fight against air pollution. The biggest impact would be to translate the complexities of the subject into lasting engagement with the general public. So, this needs to be scientifically sound, communicated without jargon, and compelling enough to generate awareness that makes people want to act. We’ve seen a recent surge in brilliant start-ups doing brilliant things to tackle air pollution; we urge industry, policymakers, and financiers to engage with such businesses.”
Alex Yousefian, co-founder of Persium: “Start-ups play a vital role in improving global air quality. We are in a unique position where we are able to make significant contributions through innovation and speed. With our revolutionary technology at Persium, we deploy advanced air quality monitoring, management and improvement systems worldwide, transforming cities into Smart Cities. Through this we empower policymakers for the first time ever to visualise and analyse pollution as well as quantify the effectiveness of policies in real-time with clear ROIs on improvements in air quality, public health and monetary savings. All decisions are backed-up by hyper-local real-time data, ensuring that we prioritise the most effective mitigation strategies to tackle air pollution globally.”
Matteo Maccario, founder of Pluvo: “Start-ups can play various roles in the fight against air pollution. In my mind, the primary two are: developing solutions for monitoring and reducing air pollution; and educating stakeholders and the public about the importance of air quality and its effects on health.”
Kristen Tapping, founder of GoRolloe: “Think outside the box. Look at the problems not being addressed. I am tired of seeing startups that quantify CO2 emissions from companies or do life-cycle assessments of electric vehicles, there are so many of them. There are many pollution sources and types of pollutants to address, and many ways of addressing them. This is not an easy field, so make sure you have a strong scientific and engineering team going into it.
“Also: start-ups, stop making world-class air purifiers and selling them for £300+. Air pollution is much worse for people from poorer socio-economic areas: you are outpricing your product to exclude those people. Instead, maybe strip some of the bells and whistles that accumulate in high manufacturing costs and create an average-to-good air purifier that can be sold at a fraction of the cost? Or ways to customise the filter where the base is affordable, but if you have money you can add the bells and whistles? Maybe, look at a subscription model to avoid high upfront costs? See how the costs can be absorbed by businesses as opposed to consumers. Just some thoughts.”
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