Investment Notes: Ao Air
We are delighted to make our first investment from our inaugural New Zealand fund in Ao Air.
Ao Air is building the next generation of respiratory protection starting with the ATMOS wearable to replace the cloth-based N95 masks. Ao Air’s mission is simple: to empower the world to live, work, and play without fear of the air they breathe.
Breathing the Future
Air pollution from wildfires, climate change and human activities are responsible for seven million deaths annually. Ao Air was originally born in 2017 to address this problem and in particular the inadequacies of N95 masks and respirators. There are many issues with these products.
They apply pressure on the face making them uncomfortable to wear. Wearers experience difficulty breathing and headaches due to carbon dioxide being trapped in masks for extended periods. People have trouble communicating while wearing the mask. Perhaps most problematic of all is that studies have shown that due to differences in face shapes and facial movement while wearing the mask, these masks have high leakage rates meaning they are not effective protection.
With the spread of airborne pathogens like COVID-19, the need to bring a new and better respiratory protection solution to market has never been more timely.
Air as a Seal
The main problem is that air-tight seals on masks are uncomfortable and lead to inhalation of Co2 by the wearer. Ao Air’s insight is that rather than trying to create a contact seal, you could use positive air pressure to create a seal around the face. The beauty of this innovation is that it means it is much more comfortable, reduces the amount of Co2 being inhaled, and is more effective protection than traditional masks.
Initially focussed on just the air pollution problem, Ao Air’s CTO Jeremy Mauger developed the ATMOS. A chemical engineer by training, he spent most of his career in the film industry building props, experiencing first hand the inadequacy of using existing solutions. The first 3-4 prototypes he built for himself.
Protection is achieved through a ‘face band’ like wearable that has dual induction fans which draw air into proprietary nanofibre filters at the rate of up to 240L per minute. The nanofibres capture 99.8% of particulate matter of PM2.5 and above and allow the advantage of energy savings rather than relying on battery power.
Ao Air’s ATMOS was independently tested by the Auckland University of Technology against 3M’s 6000 respirator, an N95 mask and a high end sports mask and found to be up to 50x better protection.
Given the COVID-19 crisis, the team is pivoting to bring forward their plans to adapt the ATMOS for the current threats.
Being a wearable device also offers another advantage - it can become bluetooth enabled and contain sensors to send data on air, health vitals, workplace compliance and so on, and leaves open potential markets in fitness.
The Ao Air team is an eclectic group of four. Daniel Bowden, the CEO, wears the commercialisation hat with his background in investing in the UK in a variety of different businesses from healthcare, hotels, petrol stations and more. He is obsessed with bringing a customer-centric and design-centric approach to product development as opposed to creating another piece of healthcare equipment.
CTO Jeremy is the type of founder that flies under the radar and spends time in his shed tinkering on products. Quote of the pitch was “You have to get involved in the whole process from manufacturing to testing to design and application, understand the early chemistry, how to build a filter, and how that filter is used. We have complete control from the very first molecule that is used."
The other co-founder Ilya Vensky brings consumer marketing expertise and is the brains behind Ao Air’s creative branding flair.
The last year has brought into sharp focus how outdated the existing solutions for respiratory protection are. From healthcare workers, firefighters, military, other regulated industries to ordinary consumers, the world needs better solutions and we are excited to make our first Kiwi bet in this team and opportunity.