Air pollution in India, is the cause of one in eight deaths, as per a study published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal. In 2017, nearly 12.4 lakh deaths in India were attributed to air pollution, making it the leading risk factor for deaths in the country. And while Delhi sees the highest amount of air pollution in the country, the air quality in the rest of the country is fast deteriorating.
When Richard Szasz and Peter Whitby, who live in Ontario, Canada, travelled across Asia four years ago, they realised the gravity of the air pollution issue. Once back in Canada, further research told them that 92% of the world breathes polluted air. This prompted them to work on a product that can help people breathe clean air and thatâs how they founded O2Canada.
O2Canada has developed a mask âO2 curveâ, which it claims filters the air up to nearly 98.6% and is able to filter particles up to fine particulate matter PM2.5.
âI wore every mask ever imagined and see where they fail and if we could design a better mask. The idea was for it to be comfortable to wear, breathable and effective. And making it look cool was a bonus. We asked ourselves how Apple would design a mask if it had to, and thatâs how we went with the design principal,â Richard says.
Having worked on the product for four years, they launched their mask eight months ago.
The O2 Curve comes with three filters, with each filter lasting roughly two weeks depending on usage and air quality index, and costs $60. The startup is currently selling it across 15 countries, with Asian countries like China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan being their main markets.
O2Canada is now in India, trying to do the same. It wants to bring its O2 curve mask to the country.
What the filter looks like after use
How effective are O2 Curve masks?
Richard says that the masks have been put through qualitative and quantitative analysis. At the University of Waterloo in Canada, the O2 Curve masks were tested by blasting particles and doing a measurement of before and after, to see how many particles actually go through.
One of the USPs of the masks, Richard says, is its silicon seal, which seals the mouth to ensure air doesnât go around and enter the nose or the mouth.
Penetrating the Indian market
O2Canada is one of the nine startups that are part of T-Hubâs India-Canada global bridge program and is currently in India to understand the market and expand its operations here.
For O2Canada, the biggest challenge currently in India is to reduce the price point of its product, while educating the Indian market about the need for a high-quality air pollution mask.
âOur biggest learning in India has been that the Indian consumer is very price sensitive. So we are trying to get creative and find ways to reduce the cost of the initial product. India is a huge market for us and with the help of T-Hub, we are trying to figure out how to get the price point to where it needs to be, for the business to scale,â Richard adds.
The Indian market, Richard says, first needs to be educated about how grave the problem of air pollution is. But the good news, he says, is that they are starting to care about their health. âWe didnât find stigma against wearing masks, but more of a lack of understanding. Most people donât understand the problems of air pollution, the effect it has on our health. Everyone thinks itâs just Delhi, but several other cities, especially Hyderabad are nearly as bad. We have to educate people that they should be wearing a mask and the ones they are currently using such as the surgical and cloth masks do not work,â he adds.
Richard working on the O2 Curve
The feedback so far, Richard says, has been phenomenal. So the focus right now is on further understanding the Indian market and reducing the price point. O2Canada is aiming to enter the Indian market officially by September or October 2019. And while O2Canada sees a few other companies trying to sell high quality masks as competition, the real competition comes from the surgical and cloth masks that are most prevalent here.
On the global front, O2Canada is currently in a scaling up phase and is looking to have worldwide distribution in five years. It is also looking to introduce more masks for various other specific applications such as construction, mining, commercial applications, among others.
âA lot of people are dying unnecessarily because of where they were born and where they live. We want people to be able to still live a normal life despite the air pollution and give them clean air while doing so. In five years, we hope to have millions of people wearing our masks, and breathing clean air,â Richard says.