At the start of 2020, most of us wouldn’t have owned a facemask. Few had a regular use for them, and the idea of mandatory usage on public transport or seeing most people wearing them on the street was a foreign concept. But now they’re fairly commonplace.
Dan Bowden is CEO and co-founder of Aō Air. Along with his co-founders, Ilya and Jerry, Aō Air have developed the Atmos — their flagship air filtration mask.
“2020 has been an assault on the respiratory system — starting with wildfires and now COVID,” says Dan.
“Our masks have been independently validated to be up to 50 times better than the leading masks it was tested against. And 25 times better at protecting from particulate matter than traditional N95 masks.”
Aō Air’s proprietary D’Fend system and active nanofiltration cleans >98% of the smallest particulate matter. But the improved performance of the mask results from its ability to protect without a seal around the mouth and nose — making them infinitely more comfortable and less claustrophobic than traditional masks. The system creates a pocket of clean, cool air for the user to breathe in the exhaled then comfortably escape the mask around the face creating a continuous, one-way flow that keeps unfiltered, potentially dangerous outside air out.
I asked Daniel what triggered their insight that better masks were needed.
“My background was I came back to New Zealand from London where I was turning around businesses in hospitality, healthcare and data processing. London, like many mega cities, has an air quality problem and for me that meant I was unable to enjoy simple pleasures like cycling without getting a lungful of pollution.
“Ilya was living in Beijing and his family almost lost an unborn child due to air pollution. And Jerry was wearing a mask on a daily basis for work and was exasperated with how poorly the protected and the discomfort.
“The issue of pollution tied it all together for us. We decided this was an issue worth tackling. Jerry presented his idea in 2016 for a better mask and we started to building a business plan around his idea for a better mask. We were really looking to redefine how a mask and indeed how the respiratory protection market works. The key to both was to put the human at the heart of the solution. We pitched the idea to NZ investors, and then BMW Group along with an American VC, SOSV as our first US investor.
“We started as a New Zealand entity but as we got more investors onboard and started growing our presence in the US we’ve now become a US entity with a New Zealand R&D heart.
“In our first stage, we built a prototype where the air was filtered through what was essentially a sock but it proved the concept, a mask could be made which used clean air rather than a seal could be made. We introduced Aō Air and our prototype at a demo day in New York, and the South Korean press and public really got behind the idea and we were unexpectedly flooded with interest.
“While we had strong indications that the mask would sell it was important to us to be true to our goal of providing a better form of protection for those at risk. This meant we needed to seek independent validation and we reached out to Dr David White and the team at Auckland University of Technology’s Biodesign Lab. We reached out to them due to their expertise in respiratory medical technologies. The team, undertook a year-long study — and confirmed that our masks were up to 25x better than other respirators on the market. It validated that our masks provided up to 25 times better of particulate matter protection but was also outperformed on all metrics measured including heat and humidity.
“Around about the same time as we received the validations from the AUT team, we also received confirmation that our patent examination was positive and we could protect the invention.
“Our next challenge was taking the mask from a prototype to a manufacturable and scalable product. We then started focusing on product development — could we manufacture at a reasonable price and make it comfortable? We started working with a company who are a tier one supplier of Samsung, and the first 100 were made in Korea and released in 2019.
“After that first run, we recognised a few design flaws in the first iteration — the mask didn’t flex very much. The result being that it was uncomfortable for an unacceptable number of users and was also prone to failure when dropped. So we went back to the drawing board to work out a way to manufacture cheaper and more durable while also addressing the user comfort issues — and we started developing something based on headphones and ski goggles. These adjustments also addressed how people intuitively put on the masks.
“This new design gave us the confidence to start accepting pre-orders of our second prototype at the Las Vegas Consumer Product Show — we were able to show our 3D printed prototype and drawings. The demand and interest from the worldwide press, from the BBC through to GQ magazine blew us away but the interest was particularly strong from those mega cities in Asia where city dwellers were wearing masks on a regular basis. This was perfect until this point, our prototypes were focused on anti-pollution.
“And then COVID hit.
“That changed how the world thought about respiratory protection. All of a sudden there was an intuitive global understanding where everyone understood how masks worked, the problems they were solving and the issues with the standard technologies. But now we needed the mask to do something new, we needed the mask to be validated to protect against viruses, not just protecting the wearer from polluted air.
“We got some more funding from Blackbird Ventures and an MBIE fund, and we’re now pursuing clinical translation from pollution to antiviral.
“Today our focus is that we need to deliver on preorders and complete our clinical translation studies.
We take an unusual stand in terms of our mask design, we have a view that no one wants to wear a mask, so our priority is protection and comfort. But after this the nature of our design grants us the opportunity to do some special things from a clear shield, which means a wearer can smile again at someone while being protected, opens up a host of digital health opportunities and we even plan to embed a pollution sensor on future versions the mask to enabling the wearer to be part of a human generated network of pollution data to identify polluters.
“Our opportunity for growth is exponential. We’re building a platform for good with opportunities to further integrate with existing tech, connect with handheld devices, etcetera.”
I asked Dan about some specific challenges they’ve faced as they’ve built the business.
“It’s a challenge to get credibility with investors and consumers when you have a bunch of Kiwis talking about air pollution. But our pitch is that everyone should have access to the same air quality as NZ,” laughs Dan.
“We’re in an interesting space as a product. We cross over so many issues to deal from fashion to nanotechnology so it looks good but we also have to deliver on the scientific side. We’ve worked hard to draw our narrative down to the human impact and making sure people understand the need for better respiratory protection — but COVID has been a pretty useful tool in communicating that!”
I asked Dan what three key things that have led to the team’s success.
“I think firstly for us is tackling the biggest problem head on and first. That approach has really worked for us — it doesn’t mean it’s easy!
“Second has been keeping an eye to the big picture. It’s easy to end up too focused on patent or IP strategies or granular problem solving but we need to keep thinking about the big picture and what we’re striving for.
“Thirdly has been the founding team. We all have different backgrounds — we can execute the granular, we can think the big picture and brand building and we can execute the business process. The diversity of ideas/background and an inclination towards action has been important to pushing forward.
“Older startups and corporations tend to be reserved about taking action — we have an ambition to try something new. But I’d temper that with not endorsing this “fail fast” mentality. “Fail fast” has become a bit of a catchall for winging it. I think we need to think deeply about an issue or problem but execute fast, learn fast. If you fail out of that at least you’ve given it a decent nudge.”
I asked Dan what future obstacles he anticipates going forward.
“There’s a great opportunity here. But we have to deliver on our promises to market. We’re working through things like working out how to transport things efficiently, sell what we’re doing when international travel is restricted and change consumer perception when New Zealand isn’t known for consumer electronics.”
I asked Dan what advice he’d give to someone looking to get started on their business journey.
“Just go for it. This comes back to inclination towards action.
“Don’t focus on your first investor — focus on getting your first customer. That brings the investors.
“And finally building a business does require a team. Elon [Musk] gets put on a pedestal but he hasn’t done all he’s done by himself. Most people learn from verbalising and it’s useful to bounce ideas off each other.”
I asked Dan what’s next for Aō Air.
“Firstly, we have to get the product out the door. We’re producing the first 1000 units and with those this will enable us to execute on the bulk purchasers from all over the world who are reaching out on a daily basis.
“We’ve got a huge opportunity to execute — and I believe our opportunity for growth is enormous. In my mind our prototypes thus far have been like the Model T — but we’re looking to build a sportscar. Respirators are such a personal thing and we just want to make them accessible, comfortable and efficient. But to that personal element, we want to make tech human again.”
Originally published at https://www.knooknz.com on December 8, 2020.