Five years ago this month, Wiktor Warchalowski promised a friend he would train for a marathon in his native Poland. But Warchalowski quickly realized the pair might be putting their health at risk: their home town of Krakow was suffering with high levels of dangerous air pollution—and running was a sure-fire way to breathe in damaging particulates.
“What frustrated us most was that when we went looking for data that might tell us when the safest time could be to train, we couldn’t find anything that was current and local enough to be of use,” recalls Warchalowski. The inspiration for Airly, an inspiring clean technology business that has today unveiled a $3.3 million funding round, started there. “We finished one marathon, only to start on another—to build a business to ‘repair the air’,” Warchalowski says of the business, set up with cofounders Michal Misiek and Aleksander Konior.
Airly started out by supplying air quality sensors to local residents in order to crowdsource the data required to provide real-time, hyper-local reports on air quality. Having proved the idea worked, Airly has spent the past five years scaling it up. Today, it works with around 600 customers, comprising governments, local authorities and corporates across Europe and Asia.
The concept is straightforward. First, Airly supplies its customers with sufficient numbers of sensors to generate meaningful data for it to work with. In the whole city of Jakarta, for example, there was previously just one sensor monitoring pollution, which provided data once an hour; Airly has now supplied 100 more monitors and is planning to install another 100.
Once the sensors are up and running, Airly’s software kicks in. Customers have access to a simple dashboard that provides a constant stream of data on a range of different types of pollution in the very specific locations in which they’re interested. The emphasis is on actionable insight—customers get a prediction of likely pollution levels over the following 24 hours so they can act accordingly.
The service is already leading to some fascinating initiatives. Presented with worrying forecasts, customers can choose to warn people to stay inside or to close their windows; Airly allows such advice to be highly specific. More progressive organizations are doing much more. In Krakow, for example, the local authority has begun offering free public transport when pollution looks set to exceed certain levels, in order to encourage people out of their cars so that the worst of the problem can be avoided.
“Our goal is to build a single source of this data for both government and private enterprise,” Warchalowski says. “People can then use this data to make a positive change.” Where organizations do not choose to act for themselves, the public may hold them to account, he points out. In one case, Airly’s data helped local residents identify a factory that was responsible for a significant pollution problem; when the local council did not act, the residents took to the streets and the factory owner cleaned up its act.
The technology therefore provides a much-needed response to a problem that could hardly be more pressing. “Air pollution kills more people than smoking or violence—it’s a pandemic in slow motion,” Warchalowski says. “Yet unlike Covid, we haven’t been taking decisive action.”
Indeed, despite some positive effects from the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw, for example, car usage diminish, air pollution remains the largest environmental risk to human health around the world, according to the World Economic Forum. Tens of thousands of people died from related deaths last year, the WEF warns, and in the world’s five most-populated cities—Delhi, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Tokyo—air pollution caused 160,000 deaths and economic losses totalling $85 billion.
In fact, Covid-19 didn’t necessarily deliver the positive impact on pollution that people might expect, warns Warchalowski. Airly’s data shows differing impacts depending on local circumstances. “In the U.K., where car use is a major contributor to air pollution, lockdowns have seen pollution fall,” he says. “But in Poland, where people heat their homes using coal and wood, pollution has increased because people have been at home more of the time.”
Insights like these are vital if the world is to respond strategically to the pollution crisis. And Airly’s pioneering approach has won customers quickly. The company’s revenues rose 200% last year alone and the business is now hoping to double its headcount as it opens offices in the U.K. and the U.S. for the first time.
The fundraising announced today will help it achieve these ambitions. The $3.3m round is spearheaded by London-based venture fund Firstiminute Capital, led by Lastminute.com cofounder Brent Hoberman. Other backers include angel investors Garrett Camp, a founder of Uber, Bolt CEO Markus Villig, Wired magazine’s founding editor-in-chief David Rowan, Pipedrive founder Ragnar Sass and Ferry Heilemann, cofounder of Leaders for Climate Action. Previous investors, including Sir Richard Branson’s Family Office and Henkel board member Konstantin von Unger, also participated in the raise.
“With public and political awareness of the air quality crisis reaching a tipping point—from California fires to a landmark cause of death case in London—air quality data will become a key utility for consumers, companies and policymakers,” says Hoberman, explaining why he has invested. “Thanks to their technology, which is orders of magnitude less expensive than incumbent solutions, Airly provides greater density and 95% accurate AI-driven prediction.”
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