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How this IIT-Delhi alumna is fighting pollution with air quality monitors

Namita Gupta is the Co-founder of Airveda, an app-enabled air quality monitor that helps you know and manage the quality of air you breathe.

How this IIT-Delhi alumna is fighting pollution with air quality monitors

Wednesday April 15, 2020 , 8 min Read

Asthma runs in Namita Gupta’s family. The entrepreneur, her father, and her daughter are all asthmatic, and pollution is a big trigger for them.


After being in the US for 13 years as part of large corporates like Microsoft and Facebook, Namita Gupta, an IIT-Delhi alumnus of MTech Computer Science, returned to India in December 2013.


Namita Gupta - Airveda
“In 2014, Delhi was declared the most polluted city in the world. In September 2014, my asthma got really bad, and after double courses of oral steroids, I realised that air pollution was aggravating my situation significantly. The more I learned about air pollution, the more I panicked. More than myself, I was afraid for my little children who were most at risk. I bought purifiers and plants. Did they help? Were my children safer now? I felt helpless. I had a choice. Move back to the US or do something about it,” she recalls.

While breathing is the most essential part of human existence, yet 8.8 million people die early each year due to air pollution, more than by smoking (7 million). Ninety-two percent of the human race breathes unsafe air. Incidences of asthma attacks, children having reduced lung capacity, and respiratory illnesses have reached alarming proportions.

Know the air you breathe

Airveda

Airveda air monitors

Namita decided to do something about it. She built her first air quality monitor for herself and started monitoring the air quality.


“I realised that measurement was key. Once I knew the number, I knew when to send the children out to play, and when to keep them indoors. I knew what the air quality was in my living room and in my daughter’s bedroom when she slept at night. I knew which purifier worked and which didn’'t, how many I needed in my large living room, and when filters were ready for a change. I was now able to understand and manage air quality levels for myself and my children. I realised that having a monitoring solution was helping me feel more in control of my family’s health,” she says.


Once Namita had better control of air pollution in her personal space, she started engaging with friends and family. She wrote a post on the their Facebook group, sharing the current air quality numbers, and appealing to residents to not have a firecracker show that year at Diwali. The response was encouraging, numbers immediately influenced everyone, and Namita says that they didn't have a fire cracker show that year.

Data for health and well-being

It was then she realised data can help create more aware citizens who are willing to change their own behaviour. She became an evangelist attending marches and events, and started using social media to drive awareness about air quality. 


But it was not easy.


Namita also tried to explain to her children’s school to not send her daughters outdoors when air quality was bad, but they insisted that air quality around the school was clean due to surrounding greenery, and mocked me for being a bad mother.


“I decided to take a monitor and leave it at the desk of my daughters’ school principal, pleading with him to track air quality and help make outdoor decisions based on data. Reluctantly, they started noting down numbers at different parts of the school at different times of the day, and realised that their perception of having clean air was quite wrong. Ultimately, they decided to set up purification in the school, postponed sports day since it was originally planned on a very polluted day, and started managing outdoor time for students during winters better,” she says.  


All this led her to realise the dire need for affordable and accurate air quality data in the country. Namita quit her job at Zomato and partnered with her brother Prashant, who has been manufacturing electronics for the past 15 years, to help develop air quality monitors commercially, and thus, in 2016, Airveda was born.


The duo approached the Delhi Government to see if they could set up some official monitors around Delhi as it had only five government monitors. The health ministry was very welcoming and they set up their first official monitor with big displays outside the Delhi Secretariat. They also set up seven monitors in various government hospitals around Delhi.

Towards understanding air quality

The next step, Namita says, was to empower citizens. They started selling portable devices on Amazon and Flipkart.


 “We soon saw orders coming in hordes where we were not able to keep our production up with demand as parents, people with respiratory issues, expats, and health conscious people sent us thank yous for helping them manage their family’s exposure,” she says. 


Airveda launched its app on Android to enable people to access air quality data in their cities and also set up a few monitors in Gurugram at Namita’s apartment, and a few of her friends’ apartments. Downloads started coming simply through word-of-mouth.


“Soon RWAs started approaching us to set up monitors in the apartment complexes to make data available. Several NGOs reached out to set up air quality monitors near polluting industries so that they could push for cleaner industries. We started working with almost every school in NCR to set up monitoring so that they could manage student’s exposure. Offices, hotels, malls, builders, and hospitals followed. We knew then that what we were doing was making a difference,” Namita says.


Airveda offers outdoor air quality monitors, mobile apps, RESET-certified indoor air quality monitors, subscription-based analytics services, and solutions for individuals sensitive to air quality. (Symptom tracker, asthma control scores, and correlation with air quality enables them to take preventative actions to avoid asthma attacks.)


The company is bootstrapped with an initial investment of Rs 50 lakh. It has been incubated at Amity Innovation Incubator.


It has a B2B and B2C target audience, and is increasingly seeing a number of international queries and orders from Dubai, Kazakastan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Finland, Denmark, Italy, and other countries.


One of Airveda’s biggest lows was after its first year of operation. When it was primarily focussing on consumers, the founders realised that consumers only care about air pollution for three months in a year.


“We saw a huge demand from November through January, and then it just dried up. Employee morale was low and we weren’t sure if this business can be sustained. However, one of our big successes has been our ability to reinvent ourselves and evolve in the air quality market, which is still at a nascent stage, and has continued to evolve. From a small company selling monitors on Amazon, we are now one of the biggest players in the commercial air quality monitoring space with clients like World Bank, L&T, American School, British School, DMRC, and GMDA,” she says. 




Challenges as a woman entrepreneur

Namita believes it’s hard to be a woman entrepreneur anywhere in the world, but potentially more so in India because it is a deep-rooted patriarchal society.  


She lists some roadblocks most women face as an entrepreneur.


  • A lot of men don’t want to work for a woman. Its’ harder for men to take feedback from a woman. I have had engineers leave because I gave them feedback about their performance.
  • The boys’ club is real. The male entrepreneurs find it easier to network with each other, seek each other’s support, help, and mentorship.
  • I think a lot of investors don’t take women seriously. They think women are not as committed to their startup and growth.
  • Apart from the fact that women are genetically built to be more committed to their children and family, and constantly carry the guilt of not doing enough, the society also puts significant pressure on women where the expectations from a mother and father are imbalanced.


With the world facing the COVID-19 global pandemic, the current times can be especially stressful for people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, believes Namita.


 “Several pulmonologists are stressing the importance of keeping asthma under control for asthma patients for staying healthy during these trying times. This is especially important in places with high air pollution. We believe that due to coronavirus, both focus on air pollution and respiratory wellness will significantly increase in times to come. The need to manage exposure as well as respiratory wellness will become essential across consumer, commercial segments and government,” she adds. 


Namita’s future plans are to continue to focus on making Airveda a brand that is synonymous with air. 


Edited by Megha Reddy