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These techies are improving air quality in the war against Covid-19

A thick blanket of smog covering India Gate due to air pollution in New Delhi. File photo
Air pollution can cause health problems such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and high blood pressure. These have been identified as the pre-existing medical conditions that raise the chances of death from Covid-19 infection. Emerging research, including a study from Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, finds that breathing more polluted air over many years may itself worsen the effects of Covid-19.

Improving the air quality has reached a fever pitch as India was home to 35 of the world's 50 most polluted cities, according to IQAir's 2020 World Air Quality Report, which collated data for 106 countries. New Delhi was the world's most polluted capital for the third straight year in 2020. IQAir, the Swiss group measures air quality levels based on the concentration of lung-damaging airborne particles known as PM2.5.

At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in the country, a few tech companies and startups are making efforts to improve the air quality (AQ) using low-cost sensor technologies and data analytics. 

Among them is  Respirer Living Sciences. The Mumbai-based climate tech startup is focused on democratising air pollution data using AI and cloud technologies and improving the quality of living. 

The firm said its flagship product, Atmos, is India’s first scientifically validated, low-cost PM2.5 and PM10 air quality monitoring solution. The innovation includes indigenously developed and patent-pending technologies for low-cost sensing and low-powered wireless networking. This has resulted in the development of a nationwide air quality monitoring network. It is currently being used by air quality researchers, regulatory pollution control boards, public health professionals, academic institutions, industry and individuals to make better and more informed decisions around air quality.

Experts said a good ventilation system is important for reducing the airborne spread of Covid-19. Ronak Sutaria, founder and CEO of Respirer Living Sciences said the firm has an application for measuring indoor air quality and ventilation. “Because the poorer the ventilation, the higher are the chances of spreading the virus," said Sutaria.

In India, there are 122 cities that have been identified as non-attainment cities or not meeting the air quality standards set by the government. However, India actually consists of 8,000 cities and towns and a lot of them don’t get featured as non-attainment cities due to the lack of data and funds to set up machines for detecting air quality. Sutaria said the cost of such devices ranges from $15,000 to $200,000. For installing such monitors in 8,000 cities, the country would require a budget of around Rs 10,000 crore.

“India does not have that kind of budget available to cover all of this,” said Sutaria. “You have to use affordable technology, which is what we are building.”

An alumnus of New Jersey Institute of Technology, US, Sutaria launched the firm in 2017. The company’s Atmos – Realtime Air Quality product and innovation has been developed in collaboration with leading air quality research institutes and organisations in India. 

The firm said it is a response to an urgent need for a scientifically proven solution at around four per cent, or 1/25th the cost of regulatory-grade air quality monitors (currently deployed at select locations across India by the central and state regulatory boards) with calibrated and validated accuracy and precision.

Respirer Living Sciences has formed industry partnerships focused on user-friendly dissemination of data through analytics and dashboards and affordable and robust device development. The aim is to spur more action from citizens and policymakers to tackle the air quality issue effectively.

It had also joined hands with Microsoft Research (MSR) Lab for its Societal impact through Cloud and Artificial Intelligence (SCAI) program. The data monitored and collected by the firm is used to generate interesting trends, meaningful insights and make it public. This helps to generate greater awareness within communities and government officials to take necessary measures.  Atmos also helps gather data from more locations across the country to get a fair analysis of the air quality index in India, given the vast geographical boundaries.

Respirer Living Sciences has commercially deployed over 800 air quality monitors across the country. These include state public health departments and central government-funded research and development agencies. It draws revenue from a customer base located across 20 cities in India and eight other countries worldwide including Sweden, South Africa and the US.

Another firm addressing the problem of air quality is Ambee. It is an environmental intelligence data company that measures, processes and analyzes hyperlocal air quality data in real-time. The Bengaluru-based firm was founded in 2017 by Madhusudhan Anand, Akshay Joshi and Jaideep Singh Bachher. Using AI  and IoT (Internet of Things), Ambee provides location-specific, postcode level real-time air quality data and actionable insights to businesses and consumers to mitigate the effects of air pollution. 

“One in five people die worldwide from air pollution and in India, it is one in three people,” said Akshay Joshi, co-founder and CEO of Ambee. He said air pollution is responsible for almost every non-communicable disease.

“Now the minute you start getting accurate data on it you can start protecting yourself from it,” said Joshi, an alumnus of Coventry University, England. “It's like if you know the water is dirty, you won't drink it.”

Referring to few studies, Joshi said the increase in pollution leads to a significant rise in Covid fatalities.  “That's because your lungs are already ravaged by air pollution,” said Joshi. “ In a post-Covid world, I think we are all now more cognizant of how much we are at nature's mercy, whether it is a climate change in the form of a flood or a storm or there is a virus or bacteria. We have to be more careful and arm ourselves with technology wherever it is possible.”

Ambee uses a multimodal approach to monitor air quality. Its on-ground sensors measure air quality, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors. In addition to government sensor data, Ambee’s on-ground IoT sensors, and open-source data, Ambee uses satellite imagery, weather and meteorological data for measuring air quality. Its proprietary algorithms carefully factor in human activities like garbage burning, vehicular traffic, construction and industrial emissions that play a major role in creating pollution, CO2 emissions, and other hyperlocal environmental factors. In addition to air quality, Ambee processes and analyzes various other aspects of environmental data such as pollen, weather, soil, fire and water vapour. Ambee also offers APIs (air, weather, pollen, fire data) for developers to build applications that can help users who are affected by air pollution

The firm builds data products across a variety of sizes and requirements. Their API product works on a standard subscription model and is used across industries, from large corporations to solo developers. In insurance, Ambee is partnering with large insurers to bring out a product that uses Ambee’s environmental data to understand risk. They also work with other industries that have the environment and climate as a primary focus, from healthcare and pharma to manufacturing and aerospace.

Ambee’s data can be integrated into healthcare devices, fitness apps, air purifiers, smart cities, office spaces and homes. It works with organisations across aviation, home appliances, big data, utilities, pharma, and insurance. These include large Fortune 500 companies like Airbus and Bosch, as well as startups. 

The firm has air quality data for over 1 lakh pin codes across 65 countries. It has also launched a website www.indianairpollution.com that provides a quick overview of real-time air quality information.

Ambee has been backed by angel investors including Venture Catalysts, Techstars and Rajan Anandan (Sequoia, ex Google). The other investors include Ambarish Kenghe (Google), Dina Wadia (managing partner, J Sagar Associates), Nandu Madhava (Director – Twitch, ex Twitter) and Aishwarya Rai. Season Two Ventures (S2) set up by tech entrepreneur Sajan Pillai has also backed Ambee. 

“The current pandemic has shown the importance of respiratory health and data,” said Harsha Vardhan, partner at Season Two Ventures. “We believe that environmental data will play an outsize role in the future, whether in health, pharma and insurance, or in ESG (environmental, social and governance) and combating climate change. Ambee’s accuracy and granularity in this field, from air pollution to pollen to carbon emissions, really excites us for the future."

Air pollution costs Indian businesses about $95 billion (Rs seven trillion) every fiscal year, around 3 per cent of India’s total GDP (gross domestic product), a major research report shows. The cost is equal to 50 per cent of all tax collected annually, or 150 per cent of India’s healthcare budget. The findings in the report, undertaken by Dalberg Advisors in partnership with Clean Air Fund and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) add urgency to tackling air pollution by outlining that it imposes heavy economic costs as well as devastating health impacts. The IT sector alone loses $1.3 billion due to pollution-induced productivity loss per year.


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