Live in any major city, be it London, Paris, Los Angeles or Shanghai, and you’ll be all too aware that air pollution is a huge and growing problem. At the same time, indoor air quality can suffer because of attempts to reduce buildings’ energy consumption to make them less pollutive to the outdoor environment — by, for example, applying high-grade insulation and recirculating indoor air to reduce heat loss/lower air conditioning systems’ energy needs. Very well sealed buildings can lead to elevated CO2 levels as more people gather indoors. So how to square this circle?
Step forward Artveoli, a biotech startup that’s building an air purifying device that aims to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen in indoor environments, such as offices and homes, by harnessing the photosynthetic properties of algae. “It’s like having trees inside buildings,” is Artveoli’s elevator pitch. The startup is officially launching onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt New York, opening registrations for people to sign up for updates.
The aim is to start manufacturing its first air purifying product this year, says co-founder Alina Adams — with a view to shipping the device sometime in 2017. Adams has a background in microfluidics, the core technology which it’s applying to increase the efficiency of the algae to enable a single unit to have an impact on the room where it is placed — having worked at the Stanford Microfluidics Foundry, along with her co-founder.
Microfluidics refers to a field of research that looks at how fluids behave differently at the microscale and how those differences can be exploited for particular use-cases. “It’s a new type of technology that makes biochemical processes much easier, faster, it’s easier to control and work with the different, complex biological systems,” explains Adams.
“I was thinking, we have plants that make fresh air so how can we put lots and lots of plants inside buildings?” she adds, discussing how the idea for the business was born. “This was an ah-ha moment — ok nobody is actually using microfluidics devices to grow photosynthetic type of cells to make fresh air.”
An existing technology — photobioreactors — uses a light source to cultivate phototropic microorganisms, such as algae, generating biomass from light and carbon dioxide. But these units tend to need to be very large in order to generate a large amount of biomass. Artveoli’s founders’ mental leap was to wonder whether they could grow the same type of phototropic cells on the micro-scale — so very, very densely packed, and thus able to pump out more oxygen.
“We’re working with small channels and small volumes, so we’re working with chips that are easier to manipulate small volume type of liquids. High density means we’re using cell concentrations inside our system that are much, much more significant than those that you’d find even in traditional bioreactors.
“So we have these nature-type of systems inside that metabolically produces oxygen and removes carbon dioxide… Light powers the system. And because we have this large surface area and high density that’s how we’re able to achieve significantly higher outputs for carbon dioxide absorption and oxygen production than traditional trees.”
Adams says NASA has already looked at using the same type of algae it is putting inside its microfluidic high-density photobioreactors to power closed, self-sustaining systems to produce oxygen for astronauts on long space missions. However, the problem they ran into was making those systems efficient enough.
“They’re not able to get this efficiency because they’re using larger volumes. That’s where microfluidic technology eliminates that problem. With microfluidic technology we have more control and we have the higher efficiency, so they can work with higher densities,” she adds.
“We’re actually talking to DARPA — they are interested in potential future applications for this technology — because we are able to produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide in closed spaces. Which is essential if you’re limited on the air supply from outside.”
Artveoli’s device is also a closed system (which lowers the risk of contamination), with the algae contained inside transparent, microfluidic plastic chips and the necessary nutrients (plus light, via an LED backlit panel) fed to them via a built-in control system. This allows for control of cell density (and therefore unit efficiency), including by controlling the rate of introduction of new algae, based on the growth rates of the existing population.
The particular microalgae being used by Artveoli has been selected because it has a high photosynthetic efficiency, says Adams. “We introduce the right proportions of media — that’s part of the control that we have, so we can have a very stable system.”
The algae won’t live forever, of course, even given ideal conditions provided for them in a closed system, so there is a need to remove waste (i.e. dead) algae from the units by replacing filters in the units and also replenishing with fresh microalgae over time. But the aim is to make this process very simple — similar to putting a new ink cartridge in a printer, says Adams.
“We remove the excess biomass, or bioproduct waste, which is basically dead algae,” she says. “And introducing — similar to printer cartridge models — you put in new media.
“There’s no periods whenever there’s no algae in the system so it’s continuously recirculating and introducing new media and removing the excess and dead cells/debris out with the cartridges.”
These (biodegradable) cartridges will need to be replaced three to four times per year, providing for a recurring revenue stream for the business. The cost of the cartridges will be similar to the price of new filters for existing air purifying machines, according to Adams.
The units themselves will be custom-built and installed for commercial customers, so will vary in size and price — although Adams says, again, pricing will be in the ballpark of existing air purifier devices, so “from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.”
Selling to the commercial market is the startup’s first push, with the clearest use-case being offices where lots of people gather for long periods of time, reckons Adams. But the team also intends to build a product for the consumer market down the line, although decisions about form factor and how to design these units are yet to be made.
The number of units that a buyer might need will depend on building occupancy, but Adams says the goal is to build systems that can create enough oxygen for one person, so in a house with four occupants you’d need four systems. (Albeit, the more custom configurations it’s envisaging creating for commercial buyers might change those ratios, depending on the size of individual units.)
On the design front, Artveoli is partnering with designers to be able to offer buyers a printed cover for the units, in addition to potentially offering other cover options — even such as a touchscreen or a whiteboard, which would obviously be useful in an office environment. The units will also contain embedded Wi-Fi sensors so gas exchange levels can be monitored.
The units themselves resemble flat-screen TV panels in terms of form factor at this point, according to Adams, but she says the team is also researching alternative multi-layered configurations to be able to build devices with other form factors in the future — such as the box-shaped units typical of existing air purifier products, so it could potentially be portable.
Why the name Artveoli? Alveoli is the name of the tiny air sacs clustered in bunches inside the lungs where the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place. The density of alveoli in the lungs provides a very large surface area, allowing for the body to get enough oxygen into the blood to sustain life.
It’s a similar density principle behind Artveoli’s microfluidics technology, which maximizes the surface to volume ratio. Artveoli is also, of course, a play on words — with the ‘Art’ in the title referring to the idea of incorporating designers’ works onto the front of the panel so the unit can be a feature in and of itself, if buyers so wish.
Artveoli incorporated last September, after starting out doing tests and building prototypes in a garage. They have been bootstrapping the first stage of development — including building their first system — but are now looking to raise funding to pay for manufacturing units to take to market. Adams says the amount they’re aiming to raise will depend on how much interest they see via sign-ups, but their initial aim is to raise between $3 million and $5 million at this stage of the business.
The long-term vision is not carbon dioxide consuming devices that are hung on walls or even moved around different rooms, but rather walls that are themselves breathing out oxygen — with the technology embedded directly into buildings.
However, that’s going to require a lot more work to bring to market, looping in architects and mechanical engineers, and needing to comply with standards/buildings regulations. Hence, Artveoli is taking a device-based (and modular/custom) approach with their first line of hardware.
“On the functionality level it will be more efficient to have it embedded, because that way we can have it more controlled and for the replacement of cartridges and filters there’s more opportunities to make it a bit more efficient, as part of the building. But to be honest, it’s at least five years til we get to something because it’ll have a bunch of product iterations. It also depends on working with architects and designers.”
Another future hope is to integrate the technology with Nest smart home devices so they could be used to control the units. “Our system is smart in itself but it would be good to integrate it with an existing network of appliances and devices so they could control that as well,” adds Adams.
If you’re wondering if microalgae-based oxygen production air purifiers have an off switch, the answer is yes — kind of. Switching the LED lights off will “power” the unit down, however, you can’t keep the lights off indefinitely or the algae will die. Adams says the microorganisms would probably manage for a few weeks without light — so just enough time for a family vacation.
Q: This machine behind you, you put art on top of it but behind it there’s an air filter?
A: It’s not actually a filter — it’s a biological entity.
Q: So how many square feet does one of those do? And what are you selling that for and who are you selling it to?
A: The typical example of a conference room, 12 x 12, we need about one system. If occupancy is higher — let’s say 4-6 people — you need two units.
Q: What does it sell for?
A: Initially a couple of thousands but with large-scale manufacturing we’ll bring the cost down.
Q: Initially you are selling to who?
A: To commercial segments. We’re selling it directly as well as partnering with HVACs because they already have sales channels.
Q: This takes in CO2 and emits oxygen but it doesn’t do particle removing of contaminants?
A: At this point it doesn’t, but we can probably do that later. But nothing in the market does this.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what the demand is for this?
A: There’s a huge new trend of making buildings healthier, not just green. Green means saving energy, healthy means providing a healthy environment… The new trend is not only making buildings efficient but making them healthy. By reducing the air that you bring in from outside you are keeping air in — and all this ties in with the demand-control ventilation. Because installing our systems locally you don’t have to bring the air so much over all the building, you can take care of where the CO2 levels get elevated.
Q: But these buildings are already being built… they are doing it without these machines, it has to do with the way the building is built. They’re bringing in fresh air. It’s completely internal. They’re doing it just in terms of the actual building of the building…
A: In addition to providing fresh air we’re actually saving energy because our system doesn’t use so much energy to bring air from outside.
Judge: Neither do these buildings.
Q: Is it just all about the balance of oxygen to CO2?… I’ve heard in different environments of people pushing oxygen into different environments and I don’t know if that produces a comparable effect?
A: There are two things. CO2 concentrations high is worse than lack of oxygen because we don’t need as much oxygen as is in the room. So oxygenators — that’s the machines that inject the oxygen… they might inject some oxygen to keep people awake and alert but the core problem is actually CO2. That’s what makes us sick, that’s what makes us feel tired.
Q: As you think about trying to create demand, educating the public and these commercial folks… how are you going to overcome that challenge? Because it sounds like an awesome technology, I’m sure it’s highly defensible… but you’ve got to convince people that the CO2 is the problem. How do you execute that campaign?
A: It’s a great point. Awareness is number one thing. Not everyone’s aware, oh I feel sick and the air’s feeling stuffy — but that means CO2 is elevated. So dealing with buildings the great point is that we have a support from a lot of research that other companies do so we don’t have to educate so much to say ok CO2 is bad for you. We can refer to the studies. For example, a Harvard study that recently just published this paper on CO2 and cognitive performance — so relying on the knowledge and the foundation that industry has, working with them, partnering, we can show the benefits and the value of providing our product to the customer.