Start-up’s air pollution monitor plots bad air and helps people and corporations avoid it
By Chris Welsch
Robert Heinecke was working as a consultant in Istanbul in the winter of 2014. Some days the air pollution was so bad he could hardly see across the street.
“When I dug deeper into it, I was shocked to learn that cities today are using technology that was mainly developed in the 1960s and 1970s to monitor air quality,” he says.
Often, these decades-old air monitoring stations are large (about the size of a small van), very expensive and few and far between. Robert discovered that in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany, there were only 15 stations to monitor the air quality of a city of 1.8 million people.
So Robert and a former colleague, Sascha Kuntze, who has a background in business informatics, formed Breeze Technologies in 2015. “Our idea was basically to bring air-quality monitoring into the 21st century,” Robert says.
The scale of the air pollution problem is staggering; 90% of the world’s population lives with a degree of polluted air. While the health impacts of this are enormous, the way the issue is being addressed is often haphazard. “People are just guesstimating what to do” to improve air quality, Robert says. “There’s very little exchange between cities about what works or doesn’t. There’s just very little data available.”
After adding an environmental scientist to the team, Breeze Technologies developed monitoring devices, about the size of a small water bottle, to attach to a lamppost or the side of a building. Moving the data from the monitor itself to the Cloud enabled Breeze Technologies to make their sensors 50 000 times smaller than a typical air-quality monitoring station and 1 000 times cheaper. The small scale and low cost of monitors means that many more can be used, creating a network.
Breeze Technologies uses artificial intelligence to analyse the information gathered by its monitors in real time. Additionally, the system suggests smart actions to improve local air quality as quickly as possible, such as redirecting traffic. The company also has systems to monitor indoor air quality, to combat “sick building syndrome” and ventilation information solutions for health issues like COVID-19. The rapidly growing company has clients such as the city of Neckarsulm, Germany, and other cities and regions, and corporate clients interested in air quality, whether inside or outside their office buildings. Breeze Technologies is now a leader in air quality sensing and analytics, using lower cost sensors.
Breeze Technologies was a finalist in the 2020 Social Innovation Tournament, sponsored by the EIB Institute to promote creative environmental and social entrepreneurship. The company has won several other awards, and Robert and Sascha were chosen for the Forbes 30 under 30 list of innovative social entrepreneurs in 2018.
Smarter clean-air actions
The level of air pollution is impacted by weather conditions, the cityscape and wind direction. By gathering and organising large amounts of data about the interaction of these factors, Breeze Technologies can help cities predict periods of peak pollution and take pre-emptive action. And the more places that adopt the technology, the richer the data becomes, allowing the company to compare the efficacy of counter-measures.
“You can imagine it like a Google for clean air,” Robert says. “It becomes a little smarter each time you put in a search term, knowing better what you are looking for. Every time a client implements a clean-air action, we collect more data about what works, and then we can use that data in every new project we do.”
Levels of pollution within a city can vary greatly from one neighbourhood to another, and even from one street to the next. Robert foresees a time when Breeze Technologies could be selling its data to insurance companies that want a clearer picture of health risk factors, or to real estate firms that want to inform their clients about air conditions in potential rental or purchased homes, or to media outlets that would like to add detailed air-quality data to weather forecasts.
Information flow lets residents decide
The company is developing an app with the Finnish company Proximi.io that will help individuals find walking routes with the least pollution. But it’s also a tool that will inform people in more detail about the air conditions around them. “I think this is why it’s so important to have enough and good air-quality data available for people to protect themselves and demand change,” Robert says.
Using information from its network of sensors as well as data from government agencies, Breeze Technologies has created a Citizen Portal that provides free air-quality information to anyone who wants it. Right now coverage is limited to several German cities, including Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin, but Robert says as the company’s network grows, so will the coverage on the interactive map. The company lets its clients decide if they want to share the information coming from their sensors. As an incentive, Breeze Technologies offers a discount for those who do.
Robert says part of the company’s philosophy is to promote transparency that will allow everyone from individuals to governments and corporations to make wise decisions about the environments in which they live and operate.
“We see ourselves as a social start-up and part of our mission is to change and to solve the problem of air pollution,” Robert says. “In 20 or 30 years, if we can get to a point where every institution, business, city or NGO that worked with us has been able to improve air quality so much that everyone can live their lives comfortably and healthily, then we can say we were successful at Breeze Technologies.”