Every revolution and phase of industrial development brings in a new set of issues and challenges for the world. With the bronze and iron age, mining for ore steadily depleted natural resources in many places around the world, while the industrial revolution of the late 19th century increased water and air pollution to a large extent. These challenges for the environment, which continue to plague the developing world, are some of the biggest concerns today in the face of climate change and global warming. While the contribution of the industrial sector to India’s GDP has gone up over the decades, it has also given rise to a multitude of health issues and lifestyle diseases.
Today, every year, more than 9 Mn people across the world succumb to air pollution-related illnesses. Every day, more than 1700 children under the age of five are said to die because of unhealthy air quality. The World Health Organization states that air pollution is the single biggest environmental health risk that we face. Living in a polluted city like Delhi can reduce one’s life expectancy by at least nine years, research says, and is equivalent to smoking dozens of packets of cigarettes a day. The worst part is that heavy metal pollution often leaves a permanent impact on health — even when the air quality improves, heavy metal toxicity can continue to harm individuals. The air quality index in most Indian cities is above the indicated healthy range, even on so-called good days. So what can be done to solve this?
While there is some work being done to take action against rising air pollution, the fact is that there has been an increased focus on cleantech startups that are using data to combat pollution. India’s cleantech industry is becoming more coherent by the day and investments are pouring in in huge amounts.
Ambee, the Bengaluru-based environment intelligence startup, is also leveraging data and predictive analytics to measure hyperlocal air quality data in real-time and provide insights to customers. Founded in 2017 by Madhusudan Anand, Akshay Joshi and Jaideep Singh Bachher, Ambee was started with an aim to create an environmentally-informed society by providing access to data and tools that tackle rising air pollution.
For Ambee, the journey started from a deeply personal place. Anand built the first working model for his own infant son, who was seriously ill. Doctors were unable to explain why the child was wheezing and unable to breathe until he collected hyperlocal air quality data and modelled it. In his quest to understand more about the problem, he started monitoring air quality in and around his residential community.
That’s when he found that the levels of particulate matter (PM2.5) near his house were touching dangerous levels of 800 ug/m3. This led to awareness in the neighbourhood and amongst local paediatricians. At this point, he realised the need to implement this solution on a much larger scale.
“We gave up our jobs and decided this was a pressing need and possibly a large market,” Akshay Joshi, CEO and cofounder, Ambee told Inc42.
Choosing Data Over Hardware
While the cause and the enthusiasm of the founders is commendable, like anyone starting out the founders had several challenges ahead, particularly from a business model point of view. An early challenge was whether to go down a hardware path or avoid it and focus on data. The founders felt that while a hardware product will see early sales, this tends to plateau quickly and poses problems of scale, supply chain, manufacturing and defensibility.
“We switched to a data play and that’s when the interest from investors went up significantly. Our team continues to be heavily tech-oriented, and has always been lean, we’re all hungry and everybody is an oversize contributor,” he added.
Setting up sensors to collect air quality data and its maintenance is an expensive affair. According to the World Health Organisation, one air quality sensor should be installed for every square kilometre. To address the cost problem, Ambee used a multimodal approach. In addition to data gathered from government sensors, IoT devices and open source geological and meteorological data, it uses satellite imagery and human indicators such as population and garbage burning. Together, these factors help Ambee create a full picture of air pollution around a neighbourhood or locality.
Ambee measures a number of air quality parameters and pollutants, including those that are considered by multiple government agencies for air quality index (AQI) measurements. Ambee’s multimodal approach and its array of sensors measure air quality, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors.
“Our aim is to build large-scale data models, which bring air quality information down to a granular level in real-time,” Joshi said.
On a postcode level, the solution covers multiple countries around the world — Ambee has installed 100 sensors across Bengaluru with over 500 sensors currently being installed in other cities India.
“We have air quality data for over 1 lakh pin codes across 65 countries. We are in the process of mapping major Indian cities at a street level.”
Besides health researchers, Ambee’s data is accessible for free through websites and through a mobile app. The team works with multiple agencies, including those that use AI and data for large-scale social good. Ambee also launched a website that provides a quick overview of real-time air quality information. It is also able to focus on accuracy as it has kept costs under control using the multiple data points to arrive at more accurate readings. It has also implemented multiple redundancies and failsafes to make sure that the data presented is not loaded.
Ambee Catches The Rising Wave Of Investor Interest
In India, investor capital goes a long way towards bringing new ideas to market. This is perhaps truer for the cleantech space than other sectors, given the development here is still nascent.
Investors entering this field are aware of the longer development cycle and go-to-market curves, compared to say fintech or consumer services, but are also counting on the larger impact — often global in scale.
“It is a heartening sign to see investor interest in this field. The present issues with the environment make it obvious that we are living through a critical phase,” Joshi added.
With air pollution being the world’s biggest health and environmental threat, according to the WHO, Ambee says anything that “even moves the needle on this massive issue” is welcome, but it’s also not expanding to any other categories on the vast cleantech canvas.
So far, Ambee has raised funding from angel investors in India. “We sought out people who understand the scale of this problem, how it is actually affecting this generation and future ones, and how we’re looking to solve it,” Joshi added.
The startup has investors including Sequoia India MD Rajan Anandan, Google Pay’s Ambarish Kenghe, the Wadia Group’s Dina Wadia, Kalpataru Limited commercial director Anuj Munot on board. Venture Catalyst and Techstars are active early-stage investors.
Overcoming Minor Hurdles For A Major Cause
Environmental intelligence is, however, a challenging field with a greater emphasis on data accuracy. The accuracy and reliability of the information have implications for healthcare, public policy and overall improvement of life worldwide. In this light, Ambee and other startups say that competition often takes a backseat and the goal is to improve the understanding of other players as well and make a difference.
“The need for emergency warnings is quite high across the globe, with different administrations and customers specifying various thresholds and parameters.”
Pollution is now a big issue worldwide and awareness is definitely on the rise in countries where the situation is worsening each year. “Being a big issue also means it gets politicised across the spectrum. Just the fact that major world leaders have been unable to reach a consensus on the Paris Agreement shows how deep-rooted the issues are,” Joshi added.
Joshi also bemoaned the lack of understanding even among those who have received the right education in these matters.
“The basic idea is that even a small delta in pollution, like between various neighbourhoods in New Delhi, can affect life and health. But there is no accurate data to measure anything, including the efficacy of solutions,” Joshi said.
Besides its consumer apps, Ambee also works with a combination of large and small enterprises across the world to provide the same air quality data for business actions. It expects to ramp up the B2B model in the next 24 months.
It also claims to have significant inbound interest from international investors who understand the problem and see value in its capabilities.
“At this stage, the quantum of capital is less important than the pedigree of the investor. A great investor, to my mind, is someone who opens their entire network and actively grows companies in their portfolio. Working with such investors will significantly help us accelerate growth.”