Indoor air quality is about to become a big wellness issue in the U.S. as it continues to be a significant concern in other areas of the world. In places such as China and India, outdoor air pollution has led people there to focus on their indoor air quality, while recent wildfires in California and the Great Plains have driven Americans to stores searching for gas masks and air purifiers.
Most of the attention around air quality is at the personal level in the home. Companies such as Withings, Awair, Foobot, Airthings, and more are selling devices that detect carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and humidity in the air at prices that range from $99 to $900. At the high end you get attached air purifiers and — presumably — better sensors.
Home builders are also getting in on the trend. KB Homes is integrating air quality sensors into a connected home designed to emphasize green living and wellness. KB is working with the company Delos, which is trying to create whole-home wellness systems that handle air quality, lighting, and more.
All of these efforts are being made for consumers and residential environments. But poor indoor air quality isn’t just a health hazard; it can also be a productivity sap. High concentrations of carbon dioxide can make it hard to focus, for example. Being too cold or too warm can also have an effect on productivity. And as someone who once saw her organization get kicked out of its office so the landlord could have asbestos removed from it, I know firsthand that office buildings are environments that employers don’t always control.
But new buildings and even older ones are increasingly being retrofitted to monitor and address poor indoor air quality. While in Helsinki last week, I met with 720 Degrees, a five-year-old startup using sensors to build algorithms for tracking and measuring particulates in commercial spaces, as well as noise levels.
Rick Allen, the company’s CEO, explains that it can use its own or others’ sensors to analyze data to glean an overall sense of air quality. The software measures particulates, low relative humidity, odors, rapid fluctuations in temperature, high occupancy, and noise. Some measurements are taken directly from the environment, while others are calculated by combining data (performing what is known as “sensor fusion”) to create virtual sensors.
Of note for companies trying to get into this space, Allen is focused more on math than selling sensors. This feels right. The internet of things is such a big deal right now because the rapidly falling cost of sensors and computing are making data easier to gather and analyze. That means sensors are embedded everywhere. The real value is in figuring out how to derive insights from that data and then allowing people or even computers to act on it.
While, some data can be hard to get, environmental data isn’t. So 720 Degrees is focused on the insights derived from sensor data and making them easy to understand. It’s also working on ways to derive new insights from existing sensors. The company’s customers include IBM, the city of Helsinki, and CBRE. It’s not alone in its quest for better air quality in commercial buildings. Other companies tackling this problem include 75F, Sally-R, and Kaiterra.
CBRE, one of the world’s largest property owners, already tracks air quality in some of its buildings that are located in highly polluted parts of the world, such as China. In the last few years, it has focused on delivering both energy-efficient buildings and healthier ones. And it plans to expand that effort.
Thus, indoor air quality has the potential to evolve into an enterprise health concern that rivals excessive sitting — a concern that has led to a small industry of sit-stand desks and other employer-funded products.