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How Start-ups Are Battling Air Pollution in China

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With air pollution reaching alarming levels across China, many entrepreneurs have turned to the idea of developing environment-friendly solutions

The menace of air pollution is far from abating, considering the air quality is worsening every year in many developing countries. Even a country like China — one of the largest economies in the world — has been struggling to curb air pollution, but to little avail. According to a 2018 report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, air pollution levels remain dangerously high in many parts of the world, including China. The report estimates that nearly 2 million people die every year in China due to the polluted air, which penetrates deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system. Among those deaths, the report estimates that ambient air pollution alone caused more than one million deaths in 2016, while household air pollution from cooking with polluting fuels and technologies caused an additional one million deaths in the same period.

With air pollution reaching alarming levels across Beijing, the bustling capital of China, a bunch of start-ups have developed environment-friendly solutions to tackle the growing crisis.

Start-ups Making a Beeline to China

Shanghai-based start-up Mila started by three expat fathers initially launched the concept of a smart purifier + subscription filter service during the winter of 2013. Back then, the population of China was quite frustrated with the lack of availability of air purifiers. Charles Liao, co-founder of Mila, recalls being quoted 27,000 rmb (renminbi) for a set of machines for his home, and another estimated 6,000-9,000rmb annually in filters alone. “We set out to address these pain points as concerned fathers: how do we build a solution that helps our families breathe better, simpler,” says Liao. Their answer was Mila. In 2014, the start-up came out with a smart ‘connected’ air purifier. Liao explains that the purifier uses an array of sensors to track indoor pollution levels, and then adjusts fan speeds to maintain optimal air quality in each room. So far, Mila has raised a seed round and will close another round for growth capital soon.

Vitality Air’s co-founders Troy Paquette and Moses Lam started bottled air as a fun idea, which turned out to be a brilliant one. The Canada-based start-up provides a fresh clean portable canned air and recreational oxygen in a can for breathing and enhancing health. “We had no idea about how polluted places like China and India were. Our idea just kind of took off one day when there was major smoke due to the wildfires locally. Then from there, people from these two countries heard of our idea,” says Lam.

Vitality Air claims to be the first company in the world to sell bottled air. Lam feels that there is an urgent need for assistance to further promote the products in places like China where the market is huge. “The fact that the Chinese population doesn’t use regular social media like North America makes it 1000 times harder to penetrate the market correctly,” he adds. While air pollution is a global issue, China is probably among the worst-affected countries due to the inefficient use of energy by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. More than 4,300 cities in 108 countries are now included in WHO’s ambient air quality database, making this the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution. The database includes more than 300 cities in China. It collects annual mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5). PM 2.5 includes pollutants, such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, which pose the greatest risks to health.

French entrepreneur Yann Boquillod founded AirVisual, while he was trying to understand how safe it is to breathe in China. Back in 2015, Boquillod felt the need to develop a solution to measure the pollution levels in the market. “I thought that if I was worried myself, there should be a few million people who may have the same thoughts as me. That’s when I decided to launch a business to primarily target the Chinese market. We were the first ones to launch a mobile app for checking real-time air pollution with hourly air quality forecast. It was a hit and we started to gather a large user base. Later, we also released our air quality monitor in China,” says Boquillod.

The start-up’s 3D air pollution map forecasts air quality index levels in real time to reduce health risks using data from satellites and more than 8000 monitoring stations. In order to go faster and avoid spending too much time on fundraising, the founders of AirVisual utilized their own personal investment in the start-up. “Fortunately, we managed to grab a good market share of the industry and it helped us to organically finance our next stage of growth,” he adds.

Challenges And the Way Forward

China with a vast market provides both challenges and opportunities to start-ups and companies cashing in on rising pollution levels. For Liao, the biggest challenge by far has been the manufacturing process, which included identifying, vetting, and engaging a factory in China to produce their own proprietary design and specifications from scratch, and to their own standards. Currently, Mila, which is yet to expand in India, is working with distributors across Asia and has recently made a push to expand into Europe and the US. “We are keen to find strong partners to work with for this market. It's a huge potential opportunity for us, however, so far we have not been able to dedicate the resources it takes to expand in India. This may change once we close this upcoming round of financing,” adds Liao. Apart from distribution and partnership concerns, Vitality Air is facing the issue of cultural differences between China, India, and Canada. It is seeking additional funding to sell fresh bottled air in Taiwan and Singapore.

Boquillod had to struggle in China initially while recruiting competent people at a reasonable price. “When you’re a tiny start-up, you’re fighting against big internet companies like Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba that have massive budgets and are not afraid to pay the premium to hire good developers. In comparison, a good software engineer is cheaper in my home country (France) than China,” he adds. AirVisual now seeks to widen its customer base in markets with high levels of pollution such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

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