Paddy Robertson, CEO of Smart Air, interacts with participants at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the air purifier manufacturer's establishment in Beijing on August 23 (COURTESY PHOTO)
A decade ago, Beijing's air quality was much worse, and the easiest way to breathe clean air was to buy an air purifier. But if you turned to Taobao, one of China's leading online shopping platforms, the cheapest air purifier would still set you back about 10,000 yuan ($1,371), a sum most people would consider too high a price to pay.
Thomas Talhelm, an American expat based in Beijing, wanted an affordable solution. He researched air purifiers and found that the "active ingredient" in most of them was a "high-efficiency particulate air" (HEPA) filter, a type of pleated mechanical filtration device also used to trap dust in vacuum cleaners. Then there's a fan to move the air through the filter.
Talhelm found a HEPA manufacturer, ordered a HEPA filter and strapped it to a fan he had at home. He turned the fan on every day and after four weeks, the HEPA filter had turned black. Then Talhelm decided to buy a laser particle counter to test if his handmade device was really getting the fine particulate matter (PM) like PM2.5, which can be inhaled deep into the lungs and cause health problems, and he found that it did. His simple DIY kit removed just as many particles as the $1,000 machine.
In 2013, Talhelm and his friends founded Smart Air, which was registered as a social enterprise in 2014, to teach the general public how to build their own DIY air purifier using a fan and an 80-yuan ($12) filter. The real reason why they initiated the undertaking was: Existing purifier brands were charging far too much for clean air and focusing on profits and not on how people can protect themselves.
Paddy Robertson, who joined Smart Air in 2015 and is now the company's CEO, moved to Beijing earlier that year to work in a job related to STEM education, which helped students learn about science, technology, engineering and math. "When I first moved to Beijing, the pollution was really, really bad. I ended up having to sleep with an N95 mask (a disposable filtering facepiece respirator) on," he told Beijing Review.
A friend of Robertson's told him about Talhelm's DIY purifier, and he thought it sounded good. "I looked at the information, the data and it seemed to work, so I bought one. After using it for a couple of weeks, I thought it was cool," Robertson added.
As an engineer with a background in aerodynamics, Robertson knew how to make the DIY air clean air even better. He reached out to Talhelm and got an enthusiastic response.
Robertson started working full-time at Smart Air in early 2016. "I had a salary of 3,000 yuan ($462) at that time, which was very low, but it was to do something that, in my opinion, would help people and make a difference in the world," Robertson said.
A social enterprise
At first, the Smart Air team didn't want to start a company and just hosted workshops showing people how to build their own DIY air purifiers. But then some people started asking them, "Can't you just sell me a finished one? I'm too lazy to make my own!" And that's how the idea of actually starting a company first sprouted.
"There was a huge market opportunity because all the other air purifiers out there were way too expensive and most people couldn't afford them. Since then, we have been on a mission to help people breathe cleaner air without spending a lot of money," Robertson explained.
At first, the team was busy solving immediate problems. "We had hundreds of people ordering our product on Taobao, but we didn't have money to buy inventory. So people had to wait, and we had to organize our shipping and all that kind of stuff," Robertson added.
With Robertson's engineering help, Smart Air products went from DIY creations to more polished, finished air purifiers that were quieter and more powerful. But it wasn't until 2018 that they finally found a proper factory in the coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian Province in southeast China, where they could build everything from scratch.
As a socially conscious business that is committed to using its resources to create positive change in society, Smart Air puts 100 percent of its profits into social good, with 60 percent going to knowledge sharing and education, 20 percent to scientific research and 20 percent to bringing the Smart Air model to the world, according to Robertson. "We provide education, we write articles, we do research and we host workshops and events where we teach people about face masks and air purifiers. And we also donate air purifiers," he said.
Have Library, a nonprofit organization that builds libraries in China's rural areas and then provides free educational services there, is a partner of Smart Air. Together they have organized several lectures in the countryside to teach children about health, how to protect themselves from unhealthy air and more related topics.
"I have bought several Smart Air products for our libraries; I think they're good quality," founder of Have Library Li Kaixuan told Beijing Review. This year, to celebrate Smart Air's 10th anniversary, a Have Library project in Linyi City, Shandong Province in east China, received a Smart Air purifier as a donation. The Smart Air team plans to send purifiers to 10 partners in 10 countries this year.
A lingering impact
"It is amazing how Beijing has been able to improve its air quality," Robertson said. Other major urban hubs around the world had also struggled with air pollution, including London and Los Angeles. London had really bad air pollution in the 1950s and it took the city about 15 years to reduce it by 50 percent, but Beijing did it in about three or four years.
"However, PM2.5 is still a problem and it's still something that we need to raise awareness and educate people about now," Robertson said. He stressed a lot more still needs to be done to tell people that poor air quality is still a problem, that this is still affecting their health.
There are also many other things in the air that impact people's health, such as dust, allergens and viruses," he explained. "For the past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been in lockdowns or trying to avoid crowded spaces. Yet we're still getting sick. That's because of viruses in the air. When I cough, you breathe it in—potentially transferring viruses from me to you. So now air purifiers have actually found a place in helping to reduce viruses lingering in the air as well."
In 2017, Smart Air expanded to India, Mongolia and the Philippines, where air pollution is very severe. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they entered the markets of the U.S., UK and Australia. The company has managed to expand its business worldwide because air pollution is, after all, a global problem.
In total, Smart Air has sold more than 100,000 air purifiers worldwide, and the Chinese market is only a small part of that. Today, with the mass production of numerous air purifier brands in China, Smart Air's price is no longer as competitive as it once was. But the company's original mission was not to make money, but to teach the public about the importance of clean air, according to Robertson.
"China still has an air pollution problem and Smart Air wants to be part of the solution. But we will definitely continue to expand our teams in other countries," Robertson concluded.
Smart Air, smart moves.
(Print Edition Title: Smart Air)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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