Devices that continuously monitor the air we breathe at a personal level may soon feel as natural as wrist-mounted step trackers. Like most soon-to-be disruptions, this development is due to the simultaneous emergence of several innovations:
- Sensors – small, durable, and power-efficient sensors are emerging that provide instantaneous measurements of gases such as CO2 and CO as well as VOCs and particulate matters.
- Data Aggregation – the sensor is placed into a device connected to the Internet, which enables the aggregation of measurement data for all devices connected across a given geography. This creates the opportunity to make hyper local air quality predictions.
- Consumer Product Startup – these companies bring design skills and consumer-savvy branding to the emerging technology stack, selling wearable and smart home devices that are stylish and easy to use.
The sensor makers and data aggregators are banking on the success of crowd-funded consumer product startups selling to early adopters. The hope is that early Kickstarter campaigns will later lead to mass market adoption at Target and Walmart. Fitbit makes a good case study for this approach. The fitness tracker company started with a pre-order for 2,000 units in 2008. By 2015, the company sold 22 million units and launched its IPO with a $4.1B valuation. Fitbit also offers a cautionary lesson for consumer product companies, as its stock price has been struggling this year. More on that later.
I have been experimenting with a simple USB powered CO2 sensor sensor in my home office and a portable CO sensor tag provided by Drayson which I placed in my briefcase. These sensors are compact and surprisingly sensitive to changing conditions.
The CO2 meter showed that levels of the gas creep up inside my office the instant I close the door and windows. In about 20 minutes, the CO2 level in my office will approach 1000 ppm, in another 15 minutes reaching 1500 ppm. At those levels, office workers complain about headaches, drowsiness, and nausea, and cognitive function begins to decline. A recent office environment study at Syracuse University showed that average CO2 levels of 945 ppm for a given work day reduced cognitive function by 15%. At 1400 ppm, cognitive function decreased by 50%. The windows in my office are now cracked open regardless of season!
The CO sensor that is buried in my briefcase has also provided insight. This sensor has a ten-year battery life, so it is easy to forget. But the companion app on my Android phone makes sure I am alerted to changes in the ambient air. Recently, I received the following notification:
We just wanted to let you know that you are breathing >10 ppm of CO
10 ppm is just above the level considered safe for long-term exposure to the gas. Drayson chose to measure CO as its presence is correlated with the presence of other air pollutants, including dangerous VOCs and particle matters. On the Cleanspace app, I can access a graph showing my CO exposure levels over the course of the day. When reviewing a day during which I received several alerts, I realized that a peak occurred regularly when my commute takes me on traffic-choked 19th Ave. in San Francisco. Who knew that CO can permeate my vehicle cabin (and briefcase) so quickly? There is an alternate route with fresh ocean breezes and views of the beach – maybe those five extra minutes in travel time are worth it?
After consumers are made aware of the quality of the air they breathe, they will act to mitigate their risks and improve their health. This will drive sales in traditional room air filtration devices as well as open the door to new entrants that provide more innovative solutions.
But there may also be a risky bet in this business - consumer companies focused on selling air sensing devices may have a hard time sustaining their success. Once air sensors reach commodity price levels, they will probably be integrated into every future smartphone. A case in point here is Fitbit. Since its 2015 IPO, the company stock lost about 80% of its value. The latest smartphones now have hardware step counters that stay active even when the phone is in sleep mode. For many consumers, this basic feature is enough, and Fitbit sales are stalling. But smartphones will never be able to clean the air you breathe, so the market for air filtration devices will thrive.
Read my previous blog articles:
- May 30, 2019 Peak Silicon Valley? May 30, 2019
- Dec 21, 2018 Subscription Hallucination Dec 21, 2018
- Sep 26, 2018 Scooter Madness Sep 26, 2018
- Jun 8, 2018 Is Innovation Best Suited For the Young? Jun 8, 2018
- Apr 16, 2018 Six Years Inside the Automotive Innovation Pipeline: What I Learned Apr 16, 2018
- Jan 4, 2018 So.. You Want to Launch a Consumer Hardware Startup? Jan 4, 2018
- Sep 30, 2015 Silicon Valley Is Not the Solution to Your Problem Sep 30, 2015
- Aug 11, 2015 The Multi-Dimensional Startup Aug 11, 2015
- Feb 6, 2015 Wearables: What's next? Feb 6, 2015
- Oct 15, 2014 Startup Burn Rate: Simmer or Meteor? Oct 15, 2014
- Aug 27, 2014 5 Surprises About Internet of Things Aug 27, 2014
- Jun 19, 2014 How to Talk to Corporates Jun 19, 2014
- Apr 30, 2014 How to Talk to Startups Apr 30, 2014
- Mar 11, 2014 Avoid the Corporate Disease Mar 11, 2014
- Feb 11, 2014 The Corporate Disease Feb 11, 2014
- Jan 28, 2014 Founders vs. Owners Jan 28, 2014
- Jan 10, 2014 CES at the Fringe Jan 10, 2014
- Jan 3, 2014 Silicon Valley Lite Jan 3, 2014