Air pollution affects more than 90% of the world’s population. Today we meet Robert Heinecke, Founder & CEO of Breeze Technologies, a Hamburg-based startup that provides hyperlocal air quality and climate data through smart, affordable indoor and outdoor sensors, as well as actionable environmental intelligence for corporates and cities.
Caroline Lair: Hello Robert, thanks for being with us today, my first question is about the backstory of Breeze Technologies, what led you to start the company and what was the idea behind it?
Originally I studied computer science at university. But pretty early in my studies, I figured out that I did not want to work only with machines and computers, I also wanted to work with people. I hence moved into strategy consulting, working primarily in the health and fast-moving consumer goods sector in Germany, Brazil, and in Turkey.
While I was in Istanbul, during the winter of 2014, there was quite severe air pollution. It’s quite common for Istanbul during that part of the year. During some points of my stay, the air pollution was so bad that you could barely see the other side of the street while walking in the city. For me, that was the very first time that I was experiencing something like that. Back then, I thought this kind of smog was only happening in cities like Beijing or New Delhi but not in the rest of the world.
Looking further into this topic, I realized that air pollution was everywhere and that 9 out of 10 people were living in areas with too high levels of air pollution. I was trying to find some data to have a better understanding of the situation. As a consultant, I used to work and reflect on large datasets, making decisions based on data. But I found that there were only very few points of data available, where the city was measuring some sort of ground truth. I wondered how it could be that we are trying to curb air pollution, that we develop all these air quality standards while we have not any data available on what the situation really looks like in the most parts of the city. If we do not have enough data, how are we supposed to learn which clean air actions work and which do not? In addition, in terms of technologies used to monitor air quality, cities are still using the same technological paradigms as in the 60s and 70s.
This was pretty much the inception idea behind Breeze Technologies: using the technological means of the 21st century to create a hyperlocal picture of how exactly air quality is distributed throughout our cities, in all of our cities. We managed to make our sensors 50 000 times smaller and 1 000 times cheaper than the market standard by moving all the complexity from the individual piece of hardware, from the sensors, into the cloud and software. That is why a strong partnership with Microsoft is very important for us. Then, we’re using these collected datasets to make more informed decisions about air quality and help people protect themselves.
Caroline Lair: Are you using data coming only from your sensors or can you access other datasets?
We are not only using data from our own sensors but we also use the data from all the public monitoring stations that the cities and the governments are providing, as well as sensors from partners. We also use satellites data traffic, and all other kinds of datasets that we can get our hands-on.
We then leverage AI and machine-learning to calibrate the sensor data. Especially if you have data from lower-cost air quality sensors, you typically face challenges with drift and aging of the sensors, cross-contamination of the different sensing elements, or cross-sensitivity. For instance, you wish to measure ozone but what you’re actually measuring might also be influenced by the nitrogen dioxide concentration in the air and the other way round. You need a way to deal with these cross-sensitivities.
This really is where AI helps: we have hundreds and thousands of data sources that we crunch all together in a neural network and what comes out of that is actually a model of highly accurate air quality data that has similar qualities to the data from the existing governmental monitoring stations.
Caroline Lair: Apart from, let’s say public data, is there any synergy or partnership possible with other private players, in order to join efforts and identify opportunities of applications for all this data?
I think it is a bit of a challenge right now because it is such a competitive market, everyone is trying to win market shares and be the best; to be the one to gather the most data. That is because data is the very key toward change, which is what we are trying to achieve.
But indeed, we have been and are setting up partnerships that also give us access to data and allow us to bring in data from partners into our own air quality models. I think the key to be able to do that is to find users for this data. Of course, we work with cities and industries, but the long-term vision of Breeze is to be able to tell you accurately for each part of every city in the whole world what is current, what is the forecasted or historical air quality. If you have this kind of data available you can also create completely new applications, business models around having good air quality.
To give you an example: We are working with a Finnish company called Proximi.io, a leader in the field of routing and positioning. They are using data from our Environmental Intelligence Cloud to build Healthy Places, a navigation app for pedestrians to get from A to B while exposing themselves to as little pollution as possible, which is very valuable information for asthmatics or people with other chronic diseases. Collecting and storing data just for the sense of having data does not make any sense, you also need the right applications for it.
Caroline Lair: What is your typical customer?
We started working on indoor air quality in 2015 when we founded the company because from a technological and scientific point of view it was the easiest to get into. In fact, indoor environments are closed ecosystems and there is not much cross-contamination from other sources. Everything is pretty much happening in the room or in the building that we monitor. We are working with facility managers or workspace managers of larger companies. They use our solution to track and monitor air quality in the workspace in order to improve the health and productivity of their colleagues and employees, or monitor and decrease Covid spread risk.
Since 2016 we are also monitoring and managing air quality in cities. We work with city governments, environment ministries, and other government entities but also with businesses and NGOs that are interested in the topic. One of our projects for instance is with NABU, a German environmental NGO. They are using our solution to monitor air quality in the Hamburg port area, in Germany. The sensors are co-hosted by local residents on their balconies facing the port. The data is then correlated with wind and weather data and helps NABU figure out which ships are emitting too much air pollution, where new environmental regulation or strong enforcement of environmental regulation is necessary to protect the local residents.
Caroline Lair: This is part of your sensor hosting program, right?
Yes, we really like projects with this citizen-inclusive approach because it also involves the local residents in the clean air effort that the municipality or another organization runs. And if you have this ground-up approach then the acceptance for clean air actions such as reducing the speeding limits is much higher – because people can actively witness air pollution and results from the measures since the sensors are actually installed on their properties. In other projects, however, we also install the sensors on their own street lights or on some of their other infrastructure and buildings.
Caroline Lair: Do you have any programs or projects in developing countries?
We see potential and opportunities for our technology in Sub Saharan Africa, mainly because there is not any environmental data provided from governments in that region. And the legacy that is typically used by environmental agencies – those measurement containers from the 60s and the 70s – is too expensive for local governments as well. They cannot spend half a million or a million dollars on one monitoring station when they need 10 or 20 of those in one city.
Because of these circumstances, we definitely see an opportunity of using lower-cost sensors to generate a first baseline truth of what air quality looks like in cities like Lagos or other capitals where there is a huge conglomeration of people and where pollution is happening. These are also the regions where you do not have a lot of enforcement on the environment, and data would help to make more informed decisions also regarding the environment and policymaking.
We think it may also help actors like the World Bank or the Gates Foundation and similar, that are heavily investing in these regions. If you have some data on these environments available then you can make more informed investment decisions about where you actually spend the money on environmental conservation.
Caroline Lair: Monitoring air quality is crucial to improve people’s health and address climate issues but not only. Can you share some of the other Goals (SDGs) that your technology and services serve?
Yes, the most obvious indeed is the SDG 3. Goold Health and Well-Being, including mental health, as air pollution is one of the key indicators of this target. Obviously, SDG 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities, since cities are the places where air pollution is the highest. Then, of course, SDG 12. Responsible Production and Consumption, as we can also enable environmental monitoring in the industrial plants.
Additionally, we are also addressing SDG 17. Partnerships for the Goals. Indeed, our approach of air quality sensing and management is leading us to work and build synergies between a wide variety of actors: we work on indoor air quality, we work on outdoor air quality, we work with industrial companies which are some of the main polluters, we work with cities, we also look at the traffic, we work with NGOs, we have the local civic organizations and citizens that host our sensors. So, we’re bringing together all these different stakeholders with all these different interests in the field of air quality.
My personal belief is that nobody can really change and improve air quality on their own, cities can decide that they want to tackle the challenge, but there are still going to be industries, individual people, and others who are making decisions every day that affect the air quality in their areas. And the only way to sustainably improve air quality in our cities and in our world is to bring together everybody and unite them under an umbrella of change so that everyone sees their own responsibility to do something positive towards improving our air quality.
Caroline Lair: What is the roadmap for the next 12 months?
We are scaling internationally and we’re hiring, we’re actually looking for a software lead.
We are currently focusing on this kind of downstream data partnership like Healthy Places. That app is going to go live somewhere towards the end of July. People will be able to use it in Hamburg first, and we are continuously planning to onboard new cities to that program. We are also working with other actors like Velux and COWI that also have applications for air quality data.
Finally, we are furthering our sensor network, getting new customers onboard, building new partnerships for smart cities applications, smart buildings, and smart industries in order to really increase the footprint of our organization in regards to the data we are generating and increase the societal impact we are generating for our customers and also for the users locally.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline Lair is the CEO and Founder of The Good AI. She is also a co-founder of the Women in AI non-profit. Her academic background is in International Relations, with a degree from Université Jean Moulin (Lyon III). And a business management degree from Emlyon Business School.