Interview with Wiktor Warchałowski and Michał Misiek, the founders of Airly.
Interviewer: Kamila Knap
How did Airly started? How did you come up with the idea for your company? How have your first assumptions evolved over time?
Michał: How did Airly started? It certainly was a subject dear to our lungs! The four of us (co-founders Aleksander Konior, Michał Kiełtyka, Michał Misiek, and Wiktor Warchałowski, Ed.) met at the AGH University of Science and Technology, where we all studied. Then came the time when we started to ask ourselves the question doubtless familiar to our peers , that is, "What do I want to do in life?". We realized that we would like to do something that people are in need of. To create things that would be new, unique and, above all, useful to the majority of our society.
While we were looking for inspiration and vision for ourselves, Wiktor and I were also preparing for a marathon. Autumn came, and with it the issue that has kept coming back to us like a boomerang. Smog! And then it dawned on us. Going out for a training run, we had no information about air quality nearby, because the closest air quality monitoring station was located a few miles from us. That's how it all started. First, we carried out interviews with family, friends, people on forums. Everyone explicitly informed us that the current information about air quality was not sufficient to them! So we started to work on a prototype of a device that was supposed to be: small - so that it could be installed wherever people needed it, precise - so that information provided to the users was reliable, and significantly cheaper than the stations available then - to create a dense network of devices and solve multiple problems this way.
I guess our assumptions has changed most in relation to our initial business model.
It is the year 2015, you participate in the first Smogathon and you were one of the winners. How has this influenced the development of Airly?
Wiktor: When we submitted to the Smogathon, we already had a fully working prototype of the device. Winning strengthened our conviction that this product was needed. Soon after that we found an investor and could start right away! Smogathon was to us a valuable experience that gave us a lot of strength to act!
How many sensors do you now have in Poland and worldwide? What parameters do your sensors monitor and how precise are they?
Michal: For now, we already have more than 1 700 sensors in Poland, and we have completed the sale of 15 devices to both France and Romania. Airly sensors collect in real time a series of parameters (they measure suspended particulate matter: PM1, PM2.5, PM10, temperature, pressure, and humidity) of the air in the location in which they are placed. Of course, we should stress that the device measures the number of particulates and their size, while the weight of particulates is calculated with the help of algorithms and modelling.
What difficulties did you encounter when developing the sensors network? What was the biggest challenge?
Wiktor: Definitely one of the biggest challenges for us was to build the whole team. I believe that a good team of professionals is more than half of success. We had no experience in recruiting; we were only starting to get to know the market and its rules. It was really challenging!
Technology-wise, I think that the obstacle that at some point – due to the very large number of already installed devices – started to be a problem was the communication technology of our sensors. We began to notice some problems in our devices that used Wi-Fi module. Not everywhere the module worked flawlessly. In smaller towns, where the reception was worse, there were problems with data transfer. Fortunately, our technical team significantly accelerated the technological development of our prototype in terms of improving communication technology by introducing an alternative method of data transfer to the cloud. And so we have developed a new electronic plate for the new version of the device which has been redesigned for GSM module.
Your sensor network has significantly increased awareness of air pollution, especially among the residents of towns that until now were considered to be free of smog. What are the users’ reactions? Were there any opinions that stand out?
Wiktor: The reactions and opinions of the users are our greatest reward and motivation. Often, we install the sensors in a town or city district, time passes and then we get an e-mail like "I so needed information on the air quality, thank you!". But the message that struck me most came from a father of a 4-year-old boy, and it went like this: "Every day, before leaving home, we check your platform. Fortunately, we have our sensor installed outside our house, which provides great source of information for our 4-year-old son. Recently, when we were going out, he ran up to the window and started to shout "Dad, Dad! Red! I will hold my breath until the car, okay? " It was one of the most charming and encouraging messages we received! There is nothing better than to know that your product protects the health of everybody regardless of age, and can be also used by children. We have always stressed that without educating children on air protection nothing will change!
Now Airly starts its international expansion- can you tell us something about your plans for the near future? In which countries we can already find your sensors?
Wiktor: We have being thinking about going global with our product since the very beginning. After really getting to know our market and building proper structures in our company this was the inevitable next step that we have been decided on since launching the company in 2016.
All this time, we were developing contacts, participating in international conferences and slowly preparing to expand. Now we are ready to cooperate with foreign clients.
It is hard to determine the geographic location of our development, because we explore opportunities in different countries at the same time, including Germany, France, Slovakia, Czech Republic or Britain. We have already sold our devices to France and Romania, and there are single sensors installed in Britain and Canada. The whole team works hard to make the expansion happen.
In recent years a big air quality industry has emerged - according to you, what are the technologies that will develop most rapidly? What do you think about the new directions - are there any worthwile trends in the industry?
Michał: To tell the truth, we support all clean air activities and technologies that can help improve our life. Technology-based actions are increasingly taken by the municipalities that want to help their residents. Technologies such as those related to electrostatic precipitators are interesting. The latest technology significantly reduces emissions through electrostatic capture of ultrafine particles.
I was really impressed by the Smogathon 2017 project. It was a cushion for baby carriages with built-in filters that would allow the child to breathe clean air. However, we need to remember that without systemic actions taken at all levels of our society it will be difficult to make changes. At the same time, I'm very glad that technologies have become a tool to tackle this problem and allow us to take care of our and our loved ones' health.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to combine tackling air pollution and business?
Michał: Probably the most important advice is to be confident about yourself and your product while staying open to the market. It's the customers and users who will tell you best what they expect from you and your product.