The business ideas that were built out of thin air
This fall the University of Helsinki and Slush, together with the City of Helsinki, YIT and FMI challenged startups and entrepreneurial minds to tackle one of the most pressing environmental concerns we face – the urban air pollution crisis. Leveraging air quality data collected using the university’s MegaSense sensors, teams had to come up with solutions to improve human or environmental health in cities. How did the eight teams that made the short approach the challenge – and what does MegaSense enable for founders working in this space?
We already know that air pollution is one of the biggest threats to human and environmental health, and the 2020 State of Global Air report that found that last year polluted air killed 500,000 infants is only the latest addition to the list of alarming news about the state of urban air quality.
As with most environmental issues, air quality is a complex topic that calls for an interconnected approach. To find solutions, collaboration between entrepreneurs and scientists is essential: there are already numerous pilots, promising directions of research, and research-based startups rising from climate anxiety, intending to restore this planet to a more liveable state.
One example of a scientific solution that has the potential to help a number of new ideas develop into something groundbreaking is MegaSense, a science-to-business program developed by the University of Helsinki. The MegaSense urban air sensing service consists of high-quality, low-cost wearable sensors that accurately measure particulate matter, harmful air pollution gases, and climate parameters at home, when traveling, or at work using narrowband IoT and 5G networks.
“Monitoring air pollution is a challenging global problem that still lacks affordable and accurate enough sensor devices. With the help of machine learning, MegaSense aims to calibrate the initially low accuracy air quality sensors with high-quality reference monitoring SMEAR stations. It results in a cost-effective and easily deployed, wide-scale air quality and environment monitoring system and a scalable platform,” says professor Sasu Tarkoma, MegaSense project leader at the University of Helsinki.
Since its launch in 2017, MegaSense has been used in the City of Helsinki’s air quality projects such as Urban Sense and UIA HOPE, and piloted in cities like Beijing and Edinburgh. In 2017, a research project combining scientific monitoring stations with AI and 5G was completely unique. And Tarkoma insists that it still is: building models based on SMEAR data, using virtual sensors, and monitoring smart city environments with 5G are features Tarkoma sees as MegaSense’s competitive advantages. He also adds that the portable sensors are in a league of their own compared to other low-cost sensors, which makes them a promising technology for startups.
We decided to challenge founders and entrepreneurs-to-be to see what they could build out of thin air. The eight works that made the short impressed the jury with their wide scope – catering to citizens, government organizations and local businesses – and included some clever ways for monetization in a crowded market:
SOLUTIONS FOR GOVERNMENTS AND CITY OFFICIALS
Megacities face heightening pressures to offer rising populations safe and secure urban environments to live in. With over two thirds of the population expected to live in cities by 2050, it’s no wonder we saw multiple solutions that aimed to help cities track, monitor and improve air quality:
CompAir’s interactive web app supports environmentally conscious city planning by making visible the impact of past and future decisions. City designers face the challenge of accessing detailed pollution metrics and the relation to past city developments – CompAir solves this problem by visualising the change in air quality for every action made in the city, and helps foresee the impact of future events.
“I like the idea and the biggest complexity will be that it is slow to sell to Gov/cities. There are a few companies in this space, but I think that it could work and have a huge impact on citizen health” – Hampus Jakobsson, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot
HelpThinkIt introduces a dashboard for targeted policies in smart cities: because pollution has multiple causes, shapes and impact, this interface allows city officials to take targeted action where it is needed. From the dashboard, policies can be put in place for specific pollution clusters. In one place, there is visualization, analysis, and action.
“This has the potential for very high impact if adopted by cities. I like the idea that the dashboard would be linked to specific actions that city planners can take in response to high pollution levels. This is also the problem. If the system is not well integrated with city processes it won’t be much use and there will be huge variety in how well cities use it” –Maija Palmer, Innovation Editor at Sifted
Haze-Ard addresses environmental quality visibility, which is usually never discussed or updated to the common public. Poor visibility is the pollution that we can see. Haze-Ard predicts visibility values in km on a path/at a place utilizing the Megasense air pollution nodes stations and high-resolution estimates of pollutants and their forecasted values.
“I like that this solution has focused on one particular aspect of air quality – visibility – which has very real consequences for people (death or injury in car crashes). It feels a bit niche because this is a solution for megacities only, but in those cities it has the potential to save lives.” – Maija Palmer, Innovation Editor at Sifted
PERSONALIZED MONITORING DIRECT TO CONSUMERS
The Covid-19 pandemic has left little room for doubt that air quality will be an increasing concern for individuals, too – and companies that can use this momentum and break into personal air quality monitoring may have a distinct edge:
Nano monitors real-time air quality in the city and in the mall, guiding users towards the optimal indoor shopping experience and outdoor exercises. It reminds users to take a walk when it is optimal to do, and suggests best times for shopping to avoid crowds and polluted air.
“Having better visibility into air quality will help us make better decisions about when to stay indoors and when we can get outside. As someone who lived in a high-pollution city in China, I understand how useful this would be.” – Mark Goldberg, Partner at Index Ventures
GASP is an analytics dashboard and web application that uses data gathered over the entire year to create a model for prediction of the air quality. The data from the server is used to create an interactive UI showing the pollutant concentrations over a map of the area.
“Tapping into the trend of wearables makes sense to display air quality data ahead of time and is a good start. Having broad usage is next.” – Vicki Peng, Principal at Omega Venture Partners
A BROAD APPROACH FOR VARIOUS BUSINESSES
As air pollution is an issue that affects citizens, it’s no wonder that many solutions chose an integrated approach – solutions that would serve a wide range of businesses or offer ways for businesses and consumers to work together.
AirFloow’s software helps manage HVAC systems using AI – the software learns the correlations between people flow and small changes in air components, and forecasts how many visitors will be at the shopping center in the next hours. The software then provides actionable insights on which intensity the heating and the HVAC systems should operate to keep the levels of air quality and temperature acceptable while reducing operation and maintenance costs.
“Heating and cooling are huge energy users, particularly in developing countries, and smart algorithms like this are needed to optimize their use.” – Inka Mero, Founder and Managing Partner at Voima Ventures
AirTip mixes raising citizen awareness and wellbeing improvement with a bounty hunt for air quality data measurements: businesses requiring air quality data can place bounties at geographic points of interest, then a group of bounty hunters carrying MegaSense sensors hunt the bounties for rewards. The data captured during the hunt is shared with businesses and sent to the MegaSense systems, and can then be used to provide recommendations and better readings to the app.
“Crowdsourcing and a pollution bounty program from citizens can meaningfully change the conversation around air pollution with realtime on-the-ground data.” – Vicki Peng, Principal at Omega Venture Partners
Purify brings strategically located air purification towers that filter out particulate pollution to cities. The towers have an on/off feature that depends on live pollution levels detected by local sources. The towers display advertising, yet owners can remove advertising display by paying a monthly fee.
“If the hardware is proven and works, it would be great to see JCDecaux ad placements replaced with Purify towers to tackle both the need for advertising placements and clean air.” – Miika Huttunen, Slush CEO
As the submissions demonstrate, there are plenty of different routes entrepreneurs and future founders could take in making use of MegaSense’s data. The solution that eventually gained the most points from our jury and brought the team a €20,000 cash prize was Portuguese-Bulgarian duo Airfloow. The team’s software-based approach to optimising HVAC management in buildings was seen as an in-demand and easily scalable solution that could generate a real impact. The jury was also impressed with Team Discover’s CompAir and Team Purify, whose solutions placed second and third:
“All of the shortlisted works were of very high quality, but these three teams stood out with technically advanced solutions that could be scaled for broader impact. The jury was particularly impressed by the winning team’s software, which not only addresses global energy consumption, but could also have increased demand in the age of pandemics when we are increasingly concerned about indoor air quality,” Jari Strandman, CEO of Helsinki Innovation Services and one of the hackathon’s organizers, sums.
However, as many of our jury members remarked, addressing urban air pollution at scale requires an integrated approach. The University of Helsinki hopes that MegaSense will be one of the technologies that incites a tidal wave of action for better urban life and environmental health.
Have an idea for a startup that could use MegaSense’s data? Find out more here.