It’s no secret that the air in China is severely polluted. Decades of accelerated industrialization has taken it’s toll on the environment, leaving millions of people without access to clean air, constantly surrounded in a grey apocalyptic haze.  It is estimated that 350,000 – 500,00 people die from causes related to air pollution in China each year.

china-air-pollution

The most nefarious of airborne pollutants are the so called PM 2.5 particles — those that measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter. These particles are capable of penetrating deeply into the lungs and are very difficult to filter. According to the WHO, every increase of PM 2.5 concentration by 10 microgram / cubic metre of air results in an increased risk of lung cancer by 36%. In Beijing, a city of over 11 million people, the PM 2.5 index can reach over 500, beyond the measurable index.

 It is estimated that 350,000 – 500,000 people die from causes related to air pollution in China each year.

Despite the obvious dangers of breathing in carcinogens daily, many people in China do not regularly wear a breathing mask. Some people believe that they are not effective, while others do not wear them because they believe they look ugly.

Pollution and blocked internet getting you down? Don’t let China burn you out! Check out our China internet guide!

Swedish startup launches a new kind of  breathing mask

Airinum, a Swedish startup company, wants to increase breathing mask user rates by launching a stylish and reusable mask.

Airinum, a Swedish startup company, wants to increase breathing mask user rates by launching a stylish and reusable mask.

A Swedish startup, Airinum, based in Stockholm has plans to help make a difference in the public health of developing countries such as China and India, where air pollution levels are particularly severe. Their goal is to bring a breathing mask to market that is effective, easy to wear, stylish, and reusable. On November 23rd, they will launch their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter in order to get the financial support they need to put their breathing mask into full production.

Interview with Johannes Herrmann, co-founder of Airinum

The co-founders of Airinum

The co-founders of Airinum

We sat down with Johannes Herrmann, one of the co-founders of Airinum, to discuss the upcoming launch, his company’s vision, and also entrepreneurship.

Tell me about the inspiration behind the Airinum breathing mask. How did all the co-founders come together to create this startup?

Our co-founder Alexander traveled to Ahmedabad in India for an exchange semester. After few days he noticed strong asthma symptoms, which he had not experienced since he was a child.
In a research project at the university he found out that air pollution was a big health risk and that almost nobody protected themselves because masks were uncomfortable or looked terrible. Back in Stockholm we came together to develop a mask that people would actually like to wear.

Despite the poor air quality in China, very few people wear air masks regularly. How does the Airinum tackle low adoption rates of air masks?

You address the biggest problem here. We see two main barriers for the adoption of protective masks:
  • Information on the health effects of air pollution has not yet reached the general public. People are not fully aware of how bad it actually is to breathe in polluting particles
  • The current options on the market are either terribly looking and uncomfortable or they don’t have any protective function
We want to tackle those barriers by educating about air pollution in informative videos, blog posts and events. We have also designed our product with the user in mind. We developed a mask feels comfortable when wearing all day and that looks great in everyday life.

What was the design process for the Airinum like? How did you create prototypes? Were there any difficult design trade-offs that had to be made?

We received help from the great design talent here in Stockholm. We worked together with a pattern maker and graphical designer to find the best shape and looks. From a technical perspective our supplier gave us a lot of recommendations based on their many years of experience in producing protective masks. Our prototypes were hand-sown here in Stockholm and the whole team was involved in the development process.
The most difficult balance to find in a mask is that between protection and design/comfort. For example, the more layer the filter possesses, the better it usually protects. Breathability however gets worse with more filter layers. We tried to find innovative solutions for this tradeoffs, such as more breathable materials and intelligent shapes.

In China, everyone talks about the PM 2.5 index. How effective is the Airinum against these especially dangerous pollutants? How does this compare to other breathing masks already on the market (like 3M)?

We have tested our mask with industry-standard equipment and procedures. In those tests we included only one 3M mask (http://solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/3M-PPE-Safety-Solutions/Personal-Protective-Equipment/Products/Product-Catalog/~/3M-Particulate-Respirator-8210-N95-160-Case?N=7576197+8690968+3294529207+4294936934&rt=rud) against which our mask performed better. However, I need to emphasize that this test cannot be generalized and that we are currently filing for official certification that can give us more reliable statistics on how well our mask protects. With this initial findings however, we are quite confident that our protection will be at least on par with that of industrial masks like 3M.

One of the most important factors affecting breathing mask efficacy is fit.  A poorly fitting mask is almost as bad as wearing no mask. How does the Airinum address this problem? How will a user know his/her mask is fitting and working properly?

Fit has been the main consideration from the very start of designing the mask. Many mask producers state high efficiencies of their filters, but actually don’t protect well because of bad fit. Several features of the Airinum mask make it fit well:
  • Stretchable binding around the outside of the mask that adjusts to the shape of the face
  • 4 different sizes that fit anyone from age 6+
  • Ajustable ear loops that ensure fit in between the sizes
  • A head strap that is provided with every mask to tighten the fit and remove pressure from the ears
We provide instructions with our mask on how to fit it. Generally though the most vulnerable part is the nose, where the user needs to make sure to press down a metal nose clip properly.

The Airinum is re-usable. How often would a person in an extremely polluted city like Beijing need to replace the filter? How much does a replacement filter cost?

Our filters last on average 200 hours. This estimate is however lower in cities like Beijing, where users will need to change the filter more frequently. Important to note is that the filter will not loose its protective functionality over time, but it will simply become harder to breathe due to all the pollutants that get stuck in the filter.
We estimate that our filter will be sold for 4-5 USD. This costs are low when compared to using one-time use masks that are often meant to be used for only one day. We will also offer convenient subscription options so that consumers can receive filters automatically throughout out the year.

Let’s talk about manufacturing. After creating your final prototypes, how did you go about finding a suitable manufacturer for full production?

We have partnered up with one of the largest and most experienced mask manufacturers in China. In our decision we considered factors such as working conditions, environmental impact, technology and location. There is a lot of know-how in China regarding mask protection, as the products need to endure such high pollution levels. As our main markets lie also in Asia, we want to minimize the footprint of our logistics and produce close to the customer.

Can you comment generally on the amount of startup capital you needed to get to the Kickstarter stage? Did you receive any pre-crowdfunding startup investment?

We have received small funding from the Swedish government, business angels, as well as the accelerator program we are part of here in Stockholm. Developing a physical product can be costly and now we aim to raise the costs for starting the production at Kickstarter. We require 10,000 Euro to get started, but we hope that our product will raise more interest and give us the opportunity to launch our product in even more countries.

What was the hardest part of your startup journey thus far?

The biggest challenge for us is the distance to the customer. We want to be as close as possible to the users of our product to incorporate their feedback and provide the best mask possible. Although we had user testings here in Sweden, in the future we want to find better ways on how to receive direct insights from customers.

Do you have any tips or hacks you can share with other starting entrepreneurs?

One tip I would have for startup founders is to apply knowledge they already possess in a different market or industry. We believe that we are able to approach our product with innovative ideas because we can apply principles from other mostly digital ventures we have worked at. Sometimes the exact knowledge you already possess can be highly valuable in a different country or for a different application.

What is your vision for Airinum in the future, after the Kickstarter campaign? What about your plans for China, specifically? 

Airinum was founded based on the vision that everyone on this planet should be able to breathe clean air. In the short run we want to provide breathing masks to provide immediate protection. In the future, however, we want to address the root causes of air pollution and find innovative ways to clean air.

More info

The Airinum breathing mask launches on Kickstarter on November 23rd, 2015.

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