The lead image here with a person sporting a rather substantial mask may have jarred you to click on the link to begin reading this article. As shocking as it looks, difficulty breathing is a reality for millions of people worldwide. We’re not only speaking of the 334 Million people worldwide who suffer from asthma or the 65 Million people worldwide debilitated by COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder). The problem is bigger than that. According to the WHO, a staggering 9 out of 10 people around the world breathe polluted air – and more than 7 million people die each year because of their exposure to airborne particulate matter and gasses inhaled in polluted environments.
Enter Adel Arigue, CEO and founder of AirBliss+, a breakthrough company with an advanced mask designed to help people breathe easier. Literally. And, true to form as a reflection of the EU collective mindset towards sustainability, the product has been designed and engineered for extended wear, re-use, and recycling. The company was selected as a Top 50 Dutch startup and will be making its debut at CES 2020. Arigue took some time out of preparing for the show to speak with Grit Daily and to share how he was understandably both a little excited – and a little nervous – to be on the world’s biggest stage for new tech. Look for AirBliss+ in Eureka Park, Booth #51276, Hall G, inside the Holland Square Pavilion.
Grit Daily: Thanks for taking some time with us today, Adel. Most entrepreneurs have a personal connection to their inventions, what’s yours?
Adel Arigue: Over the past 20 years working in corporate, I had the opportunity to travel a lot throughout the Middle East and Asia. A few years ago, I was in a hotel lobby in China speaking with a few other conference delegates. Unexpectedly, I was overwhelmed with difficulty breathing and felt like I was having a heart attack, but the symptoms weren’t consistent with how a cardiac event was defined. After abruptly excusing myself from the conversation, I went to my room to recover. The next day, I felt a little better and learned that I had suffered from the effects of smog which was at particularly high levels that week. A national TV channel in Beijing measured mask usage and reported that only 5% of citizens regularly wore a mask despite repeated “red zone” pollution levels. From then on, I began traveling with a mask. While in Tehran in 2016-2018, I repeatedly had similar bouts with smog and purchased every mask that I could buy there and abroad. None of them really worked. They were all uncomfortable, bulky, ineffective or difficult to breathe through. One day, in conversation with a police officer in Tehran, I noticed that his mask was on his forehead, instead of over his mouth and nose as the product was intended for. The observation was counterintuitive – everyone acknowledged that they need a mask and they wear it when the smog index enters the “red zone” – but they take it off and spend more time carrying the mask than using it.
GD: Why does the world need another personal mask or filter?
AA: There are thousands of options when you consider both consumer and professional, industrial options but adoption rates are shockingly low. Yes, consumers buy masks, but they don’t use them. Personally, I would like to see a collective, global effort where we work together to reduce the sources of pollution but the amount that is already in the atmosphere will take hundreds of years to dispel. So, in the interim, we need to find a way to promote better health and improve the local quality of the air we inhale. My vision is to protect all those who live in highly polluted environments. To achieve that vision, we needed to design a mask that people would wear daily, and for extended periods.
GD: What makes the AirBliss+ the “world’s best” air pollution mask and what makes it “smart?”
AA: Many charcoal masks are intended to be disposable and they do filter some of the airborne particulate matter, but they do little with respect to impeding noxious gasses from entering the lungs. In London, 7% of the 4,000 commuters who cycle regularly wear a mask. Every single one of them had purchased a mask or multiple masks in some cases, but none of them had made wearing a mask part of their daily routine. However, 2019 data show that there are more than 70,000 cyclists which represents a significant market opportunity.
We took a moderate approach to “smart” for our first-generation mask as we focused our resources on developing a design where comfort was the #1 objective. It took us two years. The mask measures hours of use in the context of the pollution levels that you are exposed to while you’re wearing it and alerts you when it’s time to change the filter. And it weighs less than 150 grams, so it doesn’t feel heavy on your face.
GD: So, what does the next generation of “smart” masks look like?
AA: N0x (Nitrogen Oxides) are deadly gasses and a silent killer expelled primarily as a byproduct of diesel engine combustion. Most masks are designed to block either airborne dust particulates or gasses – not both. And, we’ve all seen the industrial gas masks. They’re huge, bulky and attract negative attention. Who wants to look like Darth Vader? In addition to N0x and 03 (Ozone), C0 (Carbon Monoxide) also seeps through most masks. The next generation of our masks will have an N0x sensor. Today’s state-of-the-art “PM 2.5 μm) optic, Particulate Matter (dust particle) sensors are quite large with surface area commonly around 5 x 5 cm. Reducing the size of this sensor is more complicated than we anticipated. To this end, we received a national research grant and are now collaborating with a local university to research new technology for this application. Once we reduce the size of this sensor, we can integrate our masks with Bluetooth and mobile phones to alert people when their filter is clogged, improperly installed or to redirect them through other parts of the neighborhood where pollution levels are lowest. If everyone wears their masks, we can harness data in real-time to generate walking and cycling maps to direct people which paths to take towards reducing their exposure.
GD: The EU has a progressive mindset towards sustainability. Tell us about how that mindset manifested itself in your mask design.
AA: I am very passionate about this. We did not want to design a mask that was just another “cool gadget” that would just be thrown in the bin when it stopped working as is the custom for most of today’s electronics. It would have been hypocritical to develop a product designed to reduce our exposure to pollution that was part of the problem creating the pollution in the first place! So, we developed a frame with a lightweight but durable plastic that would withstand heavy use and not become brittle. Next, we designed the mask to be simple to use with accessible parts so that customers could easily change the filters themselves. Our filters are non-woven cellulose fabrics that are 100% recyclable and do not have any mixed materials or plastics. Third, as much as we wanted a lightweight, small, custom lithium battery, this wasn’t a sustainable option. Instead, we opted to use rechargeable AAA batteries which required a surprising amount of engineering given their size and weight, but it was the best option for our environment as they could be reused then ultimately recycled when they are expired. Finally, we designed a mask seal in three sizes (S, M, L) to optimize fit and offer a few color selections towards personalization. The seal is free, and consumers receive a discounted subscription for replacement filters if they mail us back their used filters (we offer free shipping). In this way, we can analyze the effectiveness of the filter and improve future products.
GD: The Netherlands is home to an active population that relishes being outdoors and cycling versus driving. What’s the reaction been thus far, will cyclists be comfortable using this?
AA: The industrial masks tend to be more effective than the charcoal “surgical-style” masks but they are also difficult to breathe through. If you’ve ever worn one, you know that you must “pull” hard as the air pressure differential within your mask versus the air exterior to it creates a lot of resistance which makes it hard to inhale. With each breath, the interior of your mask becomes warmer and wetter, as well as increasingly stale, which all contribute to the negative user experience. Facial skin is particularly sensitive, and most masks irritate the flesh and the straps or buckles tend to get caught in hair. The seals aren’t custom fit to different facial shapes so you’re likely inhaling contaminated air anyway through the gaps along your cheeks and chin. In some countries, to promote health and wellness, employers mandate the use of masks where non-compliance results in being fired from your job, so the consequences of low adoption go beyond air quality and lung health. Thus far, based on our market research, the response has been positive. Over 300 people (5-10% of whom cite having respiratory ailments) have already signed our waiting list to receive the first generation of masks when they become available in the Spring.
GD: Is your technology regulated by health authorities?
AA: Not yet. We would welcome this along with a future path towards reimbursement as a health and wellness device towards preventive medicine, but this will take some time. We are currently in discussions with several health insurance companies and hope to say more about this soon.
GD: Where is your product currently sold?
AA: Our masks will not be available until late Spring 2020. We are collaborating with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands who has advanced, specialty equipment designed for studies with COPD patients and our masks may become part of their research. Collaborating on research with academics is a key part of our strategy and we welcome discussions and joint grant applications.
GD: Is your technology patented?
AA: We developed a patent-pending “breathe easy fan system” which is battery-powered to deliver enough air, easily, for people that are doing moderate exercise as they cycle. We drop the resistance of air to make it feel like you are breathing naturally versus pulling hard through a thick mask and filter. Our fan also exits the warm, wet exhaled CO2 quickly. The mask is lit with LED to improve night visibility. And our patented custom-fit seal ensures a good fit. Our proprietary algorithm analyzes air quality and filter usage to monitor when mask performance becomes sub-optimal and to initiate a change-filter alert. The inclusion of batteries is also a new aspect.
GD: Tell us about the concept behind rewarding people for making their cities a better place to live.
AA: This idea came to us with the concept of our customer discovery. When you cycle, you are in a polluted city and you routinely see folks with a mask. When you do, asking them how their masks fit if they’re comfortable and if they would recommend that model to you are a natural part of the conversation. People need to be rewarded as brand champions versus used for their data so that it can be sold to third parties which has become the new standard practice. That’s not what we want. With blockchain protection measures on the horizon, customers who voluntarily report their local air quality via their masks should be compensated for sharing that information. Helping others in society should be rewarded.
GD: Who is your target market?
AA: Today, our B2C model targets the health-conscious city dweller who lives in a polluted city where wearing a mask is already part of the culture. EU has not yet wholly embraced the fact that we have a pollution problem whereas cities like New Delhi, where you didn’t see a single mask five years ago, now sells millions of units each year. We cannot limit the market opportunity to diesel exhaust from air and road transportation. Natural disasters, such as the forest fires that recently raged in California, New Zealand, and Canada significantly impair air quality.
GD: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
AA: It is counter-intuitive that masks have been around for more than 100 years, but they have not been adopted. Why? Because they’re bulky, uncomfortable and not attractive. And, paradoxically, why is it that the consumer who cycles or scooters to work to minimize environmental impact is the one who suffers poor health by inhaling polluted air on the roadways? If I don’t want to wear it even though I need to, clearly, we need a better solution.
GD: What is the biggest obstacle standing in your way of global adoption with this?
AA: Like most startups, we need to align with the right partners and investors. However, B2C models scare investors. And, if you’re crazy enough to have a hardware-based B2C in this world of B2B freemium software where it’s relatively easy to rack up millions of users and generate millions of dollars through ad revenues and data sales, then investors pretty much run away from you as fast and as far as they can. The threat of cheap-fakes and knockoffs is real and can jeopardize all the years of work, effort, and personal investment. But there is a massive need and opportunity here. It’s very tough to break the “chicken & egg” cycle where investors tell you to come back once you’ve sold 1 Million units, but, if you’ve sold that many masks, you’ve generated cashflow and likely no longer need their investment dollars. China is the unequivocal leader in hardware development. Each year, they are investing in hardware startups: Xiaomi alone invested $150 million last year. In contrast, the EU is all but ignoring the field.
“Hardware will take people to Mars. Not software.” ~Elon Musk