05 - Air pollution, what’s the solution? ft. Dan Bowden

December 17, 2019

Dan is the CEO and co-founder of Ao Air - headquartered in Portland, Oregon. Ao Air’s Facewear creates a personal wearable solution to air pollution. Air pollution is a global killer of over 7m killing more than smoking every year and has been linked to heart disease, respiratory problems, Alzheimer’s, depression, crime, reducing mental acuity, slower marathons and even to obesity and baldness.  Their patented facewear is an alternative to a mask or respirator which creates a pocket of clear, fresh air for the user this means no need for a tight seal around the mouth and nose. They start their design at the molecular level and has been independently validated to be up to 50x better than current solutions, has debuted on the runways of New York and Seoul and received international recognition from Fast Company.

Pinar Guvenc  00:00

Hello everyone and welcome to the fifth episode of What's Wrong With: The Podcast. My name is Pinar Guvenc and I'm the managing partner of Eray Carbajo, an award winning Architecture and Design Studio based in New York and Istanbul with a mission of creating concepts that address urban, social and environmental problems. Today we have the privilege of talking to Dan Bowden. Dan is the CEO and co founder of Ao Air Ao Air's facewear creates a personal wearable solution to air pollution. Air Pollution is a global killer of over 7 million, killing more than smoking every year and has been linked to heart disease, respiratory problems, Alzheimer's, depression, crime, reducing mental acuity, slower marathons, and even to obesity and baldness. Their patented facewear is an alternative to a mask or respirator which creates a pocket of clear fresh air for the user. This means no need for a tight seal around the mouth and nose. They started their design at the molecular level and has been independently validated to be up to 50 times better than current solutions. It has debuted on the runways of New York and Seoul and has received international recognition from Fast Company.  Hi, Dan, welcome. 

Dan Bowden  01:16

Good to meet you. 

Pinar Guvenc  01:16

Great to have you here today. Can you give a little bit more information on yourself and your background?

Dan Bowden  01:22

Yeah, so my background is originally from New Zealand, moved out to London and started a company within the banking industry grew that to about 1.5 billion in size and got to a point in my career we're sort of a little bit tired of of life and needed take a breather from London life back in the mayhem, but it is and so I quit my job in London, decided I was going to move back to New Zealand for some fresh air and spent some time over in Guatemala. Where I was working for charity and started to really sort of reevaluate what I want to do with my life. And part of that was I wanted to find a way of finding a role and a company that we could found that could prove that capitalism doing good with exclusive tasks. So I got back to New Zealand, not really knowing what I wanted to do, other than having a sort of very vague sort of a goal. And it was at a time I met my co-founders. One of them was working in the film industry, and we're working with nanotechnology and came up with this new solution around air pollution, protection and was working with masks and respirators on a daily basis. The other co founder, Elliot was just back from China where his wife was given a pretty stark choice. He had choice number one, which was basically to leave the country. choice number two is your unborn child was going to be at risk. And that was largely down to the air pollution. 

Pinar Guvenc  02:56

Oh, wow. 

Dan Bowden  02:57

Yeah, it was a really horrendous situation. But that we're dealing with. So between the three of us we sort of having a chat about this technology that my co-founder, Jerry, the nanotechnologist had been working with, and really I started to understand a little bit about the problems of air pollution in a much greater way, and in particular about the flaws with the existing personal solutions, and to sort of give you a bit of a background on that, a typical market would need two things, you need a filter, and you need a seal. So the filter is what cleans the air, the seal is what captures the air and make sure that all the air goes through the filter. So that's why you have to have that tight seal around the mouth, nose around any kind of typical mask or respirator. So the problems with it are quite endemic and quite, quite widespread. But the probably best encapsulated by us and some comments in the press over in Sydney at the moment from a bushfire expert who said that current face masks are close to useless in the environment that they're dealing with. And also we sort of started to discover that, you know, look to the few studies and about 84% of masks suffered sort of one form of problem from trouble with communicating or breathing pressure, pressure on the face, headaches, and even creating self contamination. So 84% of users had one form of problem with the existing technologies. But the biggest problem we really found was 95% of people buy these masks for performance. Yet, the performance depends on facial size, shape and the movement of the face. And there's a big problem with that kind of design. What's wrong with that design is pretty simple. Faces smile, which creates creases in the face and faces move. They talk. Faces grow facial hair, faces sweat, faces are constantly evolving and changing and not all faces are the same. So these simple differences in facial morphology and movement leading to leakages in the system of about 68%. So, a key of what my co-founder really started to look at was could we create a mask that didn't depend on the facial shape. And that was really at the core of what he brought to the table there. From my point of view, I thought this was intriguing, and we didn't really know what we're doing in startups. But we looked at it when well, could we use this not only to make a beautiful projection, a more human form of design, but we also make this a platform for more than just prediction. And that was sort of got us on the starting point of what was O2O2 and is now Ao Air. So for us, we really came out with one key goal, and that was really to live without - or enable people who are at risk of air pollution or air pollutants or airborne pathogens, to live life without the fear of the air that they breathe. That was the very simple goal that we gave our company. And that's what I mean by the ability to correct this is not only just a bit of protection, but also to credit the platform because we could use this as a way of actually monitoring the outside environment, creating a wider systemic change connecting people. And with that goal in mind of enabling people to live without fear of the air that they breathe. We started go out and started to sort of look to people that were there now, why did they work, people that were interested in us and received a groundswell of support from a lot of people who started to speak with one of the first supporters of that was the group called Urban X, which was a New York Brooklyn based company, which was a joint venture between money and [unintelligable]. To this day, I don't know why they thought it was a good idea to invest into us, given the state of the company at that point in time. I'm so glad that they did, I think, perhaps came to us that really strong vision that we wanted to make our cities better and we want to enable people to enjoy their cities.

Pinar Guvenc  07:26

I think it's fascinating how you addressed the topic. How do you think this can sort of, I guess, grow from it being a phase where you mentioned a community? And do you foresee any other wearables that could sort of help us in terms of not only allowing us to breathe fresh air, but also to this awareness and educational piece to it,

Dan Bowden  07:51

This human problem all those people forget about these things. Well, it's pretty easy to do when you're talking about something that you're trying to block something that is 3000 the size of the human hair, these particulate matter is so fine that you can't really see that part of your everyday environment and when you're trying to conquer or you're addressing a problem that is so huge, and seemingly unchangeable, humans are such adaptive beasts that we can have, we can adapt to any kind of problem that, and any kind of environment, we are very malleable and plastic and our ability to, to accept our circumstances. I guess our approach to that was you know what, okay, just because you're living in a place like in China, or you're living in place like [], a place that you shouldn't be restricted from smiling with your daughter when you take her to the park and, and go play. You shouldn't be as an elderly person stopped from going for a walk. You shouldn't be stopped from going for run in Seol. So we really started with a problem at a very, very human level. That was kind of critical to every thinking and piece of design that we've had done behind that. Your actual question about other other wearables that can form and be part of this solution. We are definitely looking to integrate with other wearables as ourselves. We're starting off first and foremost with the biggest problem first, which is a process of focusing on on a better solution or better quality air for the user. But in doing that, we managed to unlock a whole host of new, valuable information. So we, in order for our product to work, we need to be measuring the air pressure and when we measured the air pressure, that enabled us to measure respiration rates and volumes. Now, measuring the respiration rates and volumes is incredibly valuable. A couple of the doctors we've spoken with have been of the belief it is as useful as measuring heart rate, and on a typical wearable that you'd see on a Fitbit. And that kind of makes sense. If you think about a lot of things in your life. If you're looking to anger management, if you're looking at meditation, if you're looking to change your heart rate, like that is typically governed by your breathing rate. If you're measuring or you're wanting to run faster, then you the key thing is finding that rhythm between your lungs, your legs, and your heart rate. So, for us, we've got something in terms of the data that we're collecting for the hardware, the respiration rate, which can be easily combined with the existing wearables that are out there to enable people a much more holistic view of the healthcare system. So, through that integration, we do believe that we will be potentially the first wearable in the world that can measure all four human vital signs.

Pinar Guvenc  11:19

Wow, and so it's not only an environmental, it doesn't only have an environmental aspect at that point, it's very much for personal wellness as well. So it both has like personal and public benefit to it to wear it.

Dan Bowden  11:36

Yeah, exactly. And when you start to bring all that information together, anonymize it and start to correlate it with other impacts and health problems that may may occur, we believe there is a lot of insight that will come from a wider public benefit. So we've always looked at the community in a couple of ways. One is just enabling that personal, person to person contact, like a smile, but also the data will become really useful to anonymize that digital health data. The third sort of string to that, that we're really passionate about, and we haven't quite got there yet, but we will integrate into that is that, as a platform, which we believe we're a platform, rather than just a straight product, is, why not connect people to the problem? Now, people wearing masks and respirators are already aware of the problem. Now, if you could enable them the ability to collect pollution data as they go through the streets of New York as they go through the streets of Seoul, and create the data that can actually enable change that can show the impact of planting a street or planting a tree on a street or changing to electric buses. Now, that's when I think - or my personal belief is - that's when real systemic and real deeply rooted change starts to occur, when you can connect people to the problem. And that's been embedded in our vision of what we wanted to do from day one, community driven personal connections to the problem and enabling people to enact the change. So we're no longer reliant upon third party sources, we're no longer reliant upon the powers that be to to enact change.

Pinar Guvenc  13:22

That is so true, because we often also talk about how you know smart cities do not necessarily mean inclusive cities like we, you know, we had seen so many conferences and read so much research around like how we envision the future Smart Cities yet we feel like there is some lagging conversation around the social aspect and thus mainly more inclusion of you know, diverse people. So I actually love that the facewear here also is very much in considered of the social angle and not diminishing the human side of, so we're not walking around like robots. But at the same time we are walking around like almost robots or sensors that will collect data to feed in a larger system and then now independently working in a decentralized way without waiting on government policy to be enacted or any other like big institution to take on something in order to have a data system or even act on the pollution, because I feel like once we start relying on the bigger parties, it becomes an excuse after a point, you know, we think no effort will, you know, make a change in the end. But then now this almost like collective grassroots efforts, somehow enables a much larger data system.

Dan Bowden  14:46

I couldn't agree more, and spend a lot of time with again, so we spent a lot of time living in London, living in New York, engaging with these conversations with people around smart cities, but too often those smart conversations are purely around the collection of great data and more efficient uses of resources. I think I'm a strong believer that too much of the conversation about smart cities doesn't revolve around how can we make our lives better? And what is the actual benefit to doing and starting with that, and what are the people actually want? Now, I don't have much of a solution outside of our things a bit, but how do we want to design our cities? How do we create cities that people are actually happy and enjoying? We just focused on what we can do, which is around this air quality issue. But it'd be great if that conversation or that smart city conversation was more focusing on what is the happiness index when we change things around you know? There's this almost like a Bhutan-like focus of gross national happiness and in a location of a New York when we open up cities to have street parties. Or when we put a mayoralty in London to stimulate the nighttime economy, what does that actually do for our, quote, national happiness of that particular area? Not just that straight? Okay, we've saved $30 on a piece of piping here in our water purification systems or anything like that.

Pinar Guvenc  16:21

I agree. And I also think, you know, once it gets into that conversation, people, I mean, not intentionally, maybe because we are bombarded by news every day that we sort of lose interest or forget and then it stops being a conversation even. But when you you know, when you create something that is so much embedded in our day to day lives, and fashion, even like that is a very much more like accessible conversation. And it's so much more relatable, which then in turn, it starts to become more of a conversation between everyone else I mean, We have, several years ago within our What's Wrong With agenda we were doing a little bit more research around what's wrong with fashion. And one thing we often came across how so much of the wearable technologies were more towards personal convenience rather than public benefit. So what we did, we aligned that sort of, I guess, questioning around the material research that we were doing in collaboration with University of California where we were working on this material that repelled water and absorbing oil based contamination. So and it was super pourous, is highly absorbent so it would track these contaminations within its pores. So it technically does not leak anything afterwards. It's not like regular sponge. So our proposal was basically edgy but in terms of sort of raise awareness and start a conversation was clean as you swim. So we actually designed a swimsuit is stating that, you know, wearing can enable us to be environmentally proactive, not just conscious. And also possibly through collective wearing, we can do environmental impact. And so when we actually saw your facewear, we were even more, you know, amazed that this that was just a concept that we, you know, published to start a conversation, it went viral and it got a lot of interest, but we, you know, we're not fashion designers we didn't intended to, you know, go anywhere, as a bikini even though and it tells cheerleaders into wearing it once. But I when we saw yours, actually, you know, seeing something in life that not only has an environmental element to it, but also is very social, and very smart in the sense that it can mean so much more than what it's intended to do. So, I think seeing that was like very fascinating and also seeing how it's actually feasible to not rely on some upper-level decision to come down and trickle down to us but being more productive by simply wearing, and I feel like fashion has a big role in that because it really is something that is, it's a common thread through all of our lives. And it's really relatable in many ways.

Dan Bowden  19:19

I mean, with regards to fashion, that wasn't something we went out to, to conquer or to do. We sort of always took a view that, from our point, that we were never going to be a fashion company. But we created a platform for others to design on, for others to iterate on. Just like when someone first came up with the first pair of sunglasses, they came up with a design that people could work with. That was going to be the thing for us to focus our energies in upon and with those. With that in place. Then with our vision, we found that a lot of people started getting on board with it and so we created these relationships wouldn't have world, they started to work with the product. At that point, I could see where it was going towards. And as you say, fashion is another touch point. It's something that's very personal to people and we're on the on the face. So always going to be involved in one way shape or form in fashion. But it's going to be a very important part of the body and important consideration for how they look. You don't make it look good, then it's not going to work. So that was always going to be important for inspiration for us. But anything that can become fashionable becomes another entry point that people say, Hey, I enjoy this. I like this. I can interact with the product as a result. So it has been a great little point for us, although not something we pursued weirdly enough, and if you saw how badly I dress, you see exactly why we haven't pursued fashion.

Pinar Guvenc  20:58

But still I feel like you, at least in the end, it's something relatable for all of us. Right? Like, I think it's a much harder conversation when you're talking about government policy or even architectural design is sort of a little bit harder to have a conversation around. And yet, you want to have a conversation around pollution without being boring, too, because you want to raise as much awareness as possible and educate people as well. And then there is fashion which, you know, I guess some people may not consider some outfits fashion, but in the end, everything is part of what we put on our bodies and how we enclose our surroundings. So I think that is very, very interesting to how see all of it come together to serve a much bigger purpose.

Dan Bowden  21:48

I agree, but I'd also say that, you know, it may be difficult to have a conversation about architecture, but you know, it's very easy to have a conversation the cities that you love. It's very easy to have a conversation about the places you love, and the places you'd like to go and about people's homes, and it's the same thing with fashion, or you know, air pollution, we're talking about masks and have an ongoing conversation that resonates with people. For us resonate this professionally with a lot of people. But also, it resonates, I believe, because again, the ability to smile at someone is something really important. And we bring that to the table, which is unlike anyone else. So if you've ever had a friend or someone that's gone into hospital, a loved one that's in hospital, it's a very dehumanizing experience because they have to put the mask over, and that stops the simple communication between the doctor and the patient. So you can find these little points to these little niche holes to start off their conversation with and that's what we focused in upon.

Pinar Guvenc  22:57

And what other I guess products or innovations you see out there that has a similar impact, maybe not towards only pollution, but you see that has the potential possibly for this like collective act and community and maybe raising awareness by doing a day to day activity, whether that is wearing or something else.

Dan Bowden  23:21

Now we've moved on into this innovation space, I see these kind of technologies and these sort of things on a daily basis. Some of our favorite things that I've seen of late is some of our neighbors here in New Zealand. One of them has a technology with a, found a microbiome that was discovered at the bottom of a goldmine and it would basically do the work of cyanide. So this, they turned us into a, basically a green factory. And and what that will enable people to do on a very localized basis is to create small little factories werein, they could take the e-waste and it could extract the precious metals from that not using cyanide, not using nasty chemicals, but using micro biomes. So I see that as one of those things I'm super passionate about. And I think the guys at innovation are just doing some amazing things. And again, this comes to the sort of city-level local connection. A friend of ours over in Portland that we're working with, is working on an app to enable people who don't have a voice to amplify their voice over certain issues that resonate with them. So the company is called Innit, very, very early stages of this, but what I didn't really understand when I started speaking with them was that quite often these people that may be suffering from some form of injustice or maybe dealing with an issue, be it the Me Too movement, be it the travel ban, cant't find the right sort of platform, it's very easy to say we'll put onto Facebook or put it onto Twitter and it'll all go viral, but it very rarely happens. And quite often when these things do happen, or you do put it on Facebook, there are certain places that you can't say these things in the open. So, you may not be in a politically free location, you may have suffered from or may be at risk of having two movement's problem, some some sexual equality issues and you may not feel free to have that voice. So she's creating this platform to enable people to have this voice, they can anonymize it. It's curated and then amplified to the rest of the world. So I'm really passionate about that at the moment.

Pinar Guvenc  25:54

That's great. And all of them have the similar, I guess characteristic in terms of how it allows people to have greater independence in something and also brings a micro level solution to something that is a much broader problem. So I guess once we're also talking about, I guess, other progress makers, what would you and someone who is in a field that is trying to tackle multiple problems while trying to raise awareness with the end user? What sort of advice would you want to give to other progress makers?

Dan Bowden  26:30

I think it's really simple for us, we didn't try and conquer the world. We didn't try and solve all the problems. To begin with. We really squint for one nice sort of problem. And we brought that problem down to a very, very human level. We found a very easy way of communicating that vision to others, you know, living without fear of the air that they breathe is a pretty simple and easy thing to to understand. And with that, we set out for us a simple set of values for the company on day one, which was really that we had three values of science, community and partnership. So we were going to focus in on the science of what we were doing. That's what we're good at. The team here can create something that is independently proven to be 50 times, up to 50 times, better than anything else on the on the market today. But if we're going to have that vital impact, we had to create a model of community. And that's as we were speaking out before, you know, enabling people to smile at one another, enabling people to collect pollution data, enabling people to create respiratory data, to have a wider impact. But if we're really going to have the impact, and we're going to amplify, we couldn't do it all ourselves. So the third challenge is always partnerships. And that's why I would partner up with - we've worked with the US Navy. We've worked with BMW and the MINI group, SOSB, we've got Korean manufacturing partners. We've got some amazing partners over in Portland that we're designing with at the moment. And working with some great people here and got some space down here. So we've always seen ourselves that individually, we can't have a great impact. But together, we can have incredible impact. One of the other things I've sort of talked about is how we educate people on the problem as well and around air pollution. The way I've always thought about how we seek to educate and engage people is, or to reduce air pollution is around kind of three R's. It's about reducing air pollution, and it's about removing air pollution and relating people to the problem. And that's also been our approach to air pollution, I think. We need to look at it as a multi-faceted approach to air pollution from reducing the air pollution with cars that are green, but also remembering that actually the way that we design our cities needs to be different. We need to have less transit, we need to have more trees, we need to have a different approach to building products. It no one single thing is going to, to impact. So we're going to reduce, remove, and then again relate people to the problem. So they know that when they're out consuming, they're buying, that it's having an impact, a direct impact on air pollution. They're out there helping the next generation.

Pinar Guvenc  29:38

Yeah, and reminding ourselves that we're part of a much bigger system. And I guess collectively, we can make change. But at the same time, we need all the diverse players also engaged and aware in order for them to act too.

Dan Bowden  29:56

Yeah,exactly. And as you got things like the EPA being sort of torn apart by political will, it's really empowering to see things that are happening. Things like C-40, where the C- 40 is going, Okay, you might have done away with Paris Accord changes, you may have done away with all these regulations, but as a city, as a community, we're actually going to band behind it. And we're going to believe in climate change. We're going to believe in the power of us to make an impact. So I think there's some really empowering things and really positive things actually happening out there, in terms of what we together, are doing. And it all starts with one or two individuals.

Pinar Guvenc  30:37

Wonderful and that your product is basically the embodiment of a collaborative approach to so that's it that that was really really inspiring Dan, and thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope this becomes also a thinking process and, I guess, acting process for for our listeners,

Dan Bowden  30:59

also Thanks for that.

Pinar Guvenc  31:03

Thank you for listening to our podcast. Tune in next week when we sit down Grace Jun, Assistant Professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design, and CEO at Open Style Lab, and award winning nonprofit dedicated to making style accessible to people of all abilities. As a designer, professor and social entrepreneur, she focuses on building educational programs, investigating Applied Technology for wearable integration and practices research focused on inclusive design. For more information on our events and our podcast, visit us at What's Wrong With dot XYZ.

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