TEL AVIV - One of the most popular booths at this week’s DLD conference on innovation in Tel Aviv was that of start-up BreezoMeter. And this, in no small part, was undoubtedly because if anything was missing from the successful two-day outdoor extravaganza showcasing Israel’s thriving start-up sector, it was a little breeze.
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Some sweating 10,000 delegates – more than 3,000 of them from overseas – wandered around Tel Aviv's old train station Tuesday and Wednesday, caked in yellow dust and chatting as much about dust particles and blocked nasal airways as about digital investment opportunities. No wonder, really, that so many dragged themselves through the haze over to BreezoMeter’s booth to get some information from the pros.
Three years ago Ziv Lautman, 30, then a newly minted environmental engineer, was doing a fellowship at the Environmental Protection Ministry in Jerusalem when Ran Korber, 33, a friend from university days at the Technion, gave him a call. Korber had a request: After years of renting in Haifa, Korber and his wife, who suffers from asthma and was expecting their first child, were about to buy their first home. Korber wondered if Lautman had any quick statistics on which specific neighborhoods had the least air pollution at the time. It turned out that, no, there weren’t any.
Cut to 2015, and the start-up company the two friends subsequently started, together with a third friend and partner, software engineer Emil Fisher, 33, is widely considered one of the most cutting edge start-up companies in the world today when it comes to supplying accurate, up-to-date information on air quality data, down to the street level.
The need is obviously great: According to OECD statistics, air pollution is today the biggest environmental cause of premature deaths (from heart and lung diseases) worldwide, overtaking poor sanitation and the lack of clean drinking water. In numbers: Outdoor air pollution kills more than three million people across the world each year, and causes health problems including asthma to heart disease for hundreds of millions of others.
“Governments monitor both our air and the weather and this information is public. But when we tried to look at the data, it turned out it was scattered and hard to understand, even for us – and we are environmental engineers!” says Lautman. “For the regular person, it was totally incomprehensibleand not actionable.” What most people want to know on a given day, he continues, are things like: Is it safe to buy a house and bring up kids in this particular part of town, yes or no? Is it a good idea to go jogging in this particular park today, yes or no?
BreezoMeter’s application gathers open source data about pollution from various monitoring stations, and synthesizes it, using very specific algorithms, with other data, such as weather, position of the sun and wind direction - all of which are is supplied openly by government monitoring stations.
The resulting information is then presented on a simple, easy to understand mobile phone application – with an icon of an elephant (“because elephants are cute,” per Lautman) pointing its trunk at the air quality index number. The application is color-coded, with each number corresponding to a color, ranging from a clean green, to yellow, to orange, to an alarmingly dark red. Health recommendations scroll along the bottom with such advice as, for example, this week in Israel: “We recommend not to perform any strenuous physical activity in the open air” to “What you need to do ASAP is close the windows and activate the air conditioner.”
At the moment, the application works in cities across Israel, where BreezoMeter collects data from the Environmental Protection Ministry and Israel Meteorological Service monitoring stations, and in the U.S. – where data comes from the Environmental Protection Agency. Operations have recently also begun across China, the U.K. and Scotland and will soon be up and running in 15 more countries, with the idea being to branch out across the whole world within a year.
The real time data is and will remain free and accessible to any individual who downloads the free BreezoMeter application, says Lautman. Meanwhile, corporate – real estate, digital health or insurance companies, for example – or municipal or governmental clients, who might want more detailed information can sign up for a premium services, for a fee. This sort of added information might include, say, historical data, indications of what pollutants are in the air and where they are coming for. The company is also working on algorithms that will, in the near future, allow them to offer a pollution forecasting service as well.
BreezoMeter’s popularity at DLD this week was not by any means the first time they have garnered such attention. Last year, BreezoMeter's first one up and running, was a whirlwind. The company was named the most promising start-up company in 2014 by Global Entrepreneurship Week after winning the Washington-based organization’s 2014 Start-up Open, and was among six finalists to be honored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Ideas for Change start-up competition in Geneva.
This year, the team was among 72 start-ups from around the world invited to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House as part of a White House’s Emerging Global Entrepreneurship event. That was then followed by another invitation to BreezoMeter’s founders - to join Obama’s trip to Kenya, as guests of the U.S. State Department at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi.
Meanwhile, back at DLD, Lautman and his co-founders have few words of wisdom when it comes to this week’s air pollution situation. “It’s so unusual, and terrible, what more can we say? Stay inside!” they suggest, wiping films of dust off their computer monitors at the booth and pulling out some eye drops. “Until the wedding, this too will pass,” says one well-wisher, repeating a favorite Israeli phrase, with a wink. And indeed, in just a week, Lautman is getting married – to a young woman from Mexico City, where talk of air pollution, incidentally, is as much of a staple of conversation as tacos and soccer.
“We planned the wedding in the clean hills of Jerusalem, in the middle of September. It definitely seemed a better choice than Mexico City, air pollution-wise,” Lautman smiles. “But then again, there are always surprises. Hopefully this one will hurry up and blow away.”