A clean air company based in Tampa and Silicon Valley is creating a buzz in the global startup community with its new air purifier, Molekule: the first device to break down air pollutants at the molecular level, leaving only harmless components of fresh air.
Notably, amidst all the buzz, the air purifier itself remains silent. This was evident earlier this year at the national celebration launch hosted by USF Connect
, where a portable, cylindrical prototype with a silver finish filtered the air in the room. A group of people crowded around, leaning in to try to detect any bit of noise coming from it. They marveled at its silence and admired its sleek, modern design.
Dr. Yogi Goswami, chief scientist of the Molekule company
, and his daughter Jaya Rao, COO, answered questions about the technology packed inside. Photoelectrochemical oxidation (PECO)
, the scientific process behind Molekule, is based on Goswami’s 20 years of research at the University of Florida
and the University of South Florida
; it is what makes Molekule different from other air purifiers on the market.
Creating free radicals
PECO uses light to activate a catalyst in Molekule’s nanoparticle-coated filter. When microscopic pollutants such as allergens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), mold, bacteria and viruses enter the nano-filter, a chemical reaction creates free radicals that oxidize them. This process of oxidation is what ultimately breaks down pollutants into trace gases like water, carbon dioxide and atomic nitrogen, which are then safe to be released back into the air we breathe. Larger pollutants like dust mites, pollen and pet dander never make it to the nano-filter. A pre-filter traps these particulates at the beginning of the cycle, preventing them from reaching and clogging the nano-filter.
Until now, most air purifiers have operated like the pre-filter, trapping pollutants on a screen as air circulates through. The problem is that these systems are unable to eliminate microscopic pollutants.
“They’re usually some variation of HEPA and carbon filters, but there are drawbacks to both,” Rao says. “HEPA filters can capture some pollutants, but a lot of the microorganisms that it does capture actually grow on the filter. I have seen mold and bacteria growing on a HEPA filter in my own house, so I know that it’s not a pretty picture when the [device] that you put to save you is actually the thing that’s causing you harm.”
Carbon filters absorb some VOCs in the air, but she says they do “a poor job at that” and can release the chemicals back into the air very easily.
“You don’t know when they become saturated, but just like a sponge they absorb. You can think about when a sponge gets saturated with water and it leaks it all back out. That’s exactly what a carbon filter does.”
The lack of effective solutions on the market motivated Dr. Goswami, a solar technology expert and professor of chemical engineering at USF, to begin researching indoor air purification in the 1990s. He and his wife, Lovely Goswami, had emigrated from New Delhi, India to North Carolina, and then relocated in Florida.
Their son Dilip Goswami, who is now Molekule’s CEO, suffered from allergies and asthma attacks that often led to emergency room visits. The Goswamis felt helpless as they watched their young son struggling to breathe.
Among the investors in Molekule are SoftTech VC’s Jeff Clavier, who seed-funded Fitbit, Crosslink Capital’s Eric Chin, who seed-funded Dropcam and Casper, and an angel investor who seed-funded Nest.
“If you know somebody who suffers from allergies, asthma or any sort of respiratory condition, you know exactly how scary that can be, because it’s so fundamental to life,” Rao says. “You can go two days without food and water, but you can’t go even a minute without breathing.”
Feeling both desperate as a parent and challenged as a scientist, Dr. Goswami started experimenting with ways to adapt a solar photocatalytic technology he had developed to clean contaminated groundwater at Tyndall Air Force Base
“I felt that the photocatalytic technology could also be used to clean air, but instead of using sunlight, we would use a light of a specific wavelength,” he wrote in an essay on LinkedIn
Destroying E.coli spores, allergens
He began his research at the University of Florida, backed by a grant from the the U.S. Department of Defense
. PCO, short for photocatalytic oxidation, emerged, but was too slow and inefficient to keep up with air pollutants. Over many more years, more research grants, and a move to USF, Goswami worked to increase the quantum efficiency of PCO. By adding elements of photovoltaics, he improved the process, resulting in PECO, the enhanced technology at the core of Molekule today.
“It took many years to get to PECO,” Rao says. “And at that point we received destruction rates where the best of what we saw was when they injected 3.9 million E.coli spores into our system, and in a single pass we saw complete destruction of [them]. So when you’re seeing single pass destruction rates, you know that you’re starting to get to that efficiency where you can actually move the needle on these pollutants. You don’t need to recirculate them hundreds and hundreds of times before you can destroy them; you can destroy them in a single pass.”
PECO has been investigated and tested by the University of Minnesota Particle Calibration Laboratory
and The USF Center for Biological Defense. It was beta tested for one year by 28 participants, including allergy and asthma sufferers. The first beta testing, however, occurred right where the personal need for Molekule originated: in the Goswami household.
“My mom was really heavily involved early on, and was sort of the person to take this technology from its original patents and say, ‘OK, our kids are beta testing it, why can’t we get this to other people?’” Rao says. “She was the first person to actually give me the device, and then after I beta tested [it], I got really enthused about it, and it’s sort of been going from there.”
Rao and Dilip joined Molekule in 2014 to help bring the device to market. She currently travels back and forth every week, spending three days in San Francisco and three days in Tampa. The bridge between the two cities started when the Goswamis signed up for an incubator project with Highway One
, a hardware accelerator in San Francisco that helps entrepreneurs develop consumer products.
“And it’s actually worked out really well,” she says. “Having both resources at hand has helped us multiply our ability to grow quickly. We haven’t found a reason to say we only need to operate out of one area. We actually feel like we’re stronger because we have both of those ecosystems behind our back to help us grow.”
All of the research and development of the technology will continue to take place at USF in Tampa, where the company started out as “Transformair.” Transformair was rebranded as Molekule to reflect the “strength in the science,” and now owns world-wide exclusive licenses to three patents from UF and one from USF. The company has also filed independently for an additional patent.
“In order for people to take and develop our technology, we would actually have to permit them to [do it], which is not a plan for the near future, but is certainly something that when it comes to different industries we would potentially evaluate,” Rao says.
“Patents are great at helping you commercialize technologies and be protective while you’re doing it, but you always have to remember that you can’t stop innovating there. So luckily we have gotten grants from the EPA
that help us continue to develop and iterate on the technology and come out with further enhancements.”
Molekule’s first two production batches offered for pre-order sold out in under 10 days and will be shipped in early 2017, when it is also scheduled for retail distribution. Once people begin using the system in their homes, its algorithms will start to collect data and analyze air quality. Different environments, such as homes with pets, may require filters to be changed more frequently than others, as will households with more members. Sensors in the device can automatically order filter replacements as needed and can connect with smartphone apps using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It is designed to cover up to 600 square feet, but can be easily moved from room to room.
“Right now we’re starting with the portable device, but everyone keeps asking us about cars, planes, HVAC systems and hospitals. So I think those are on the roadmap for sure. And especially for places like Beijing in China, China in general, or Asia, to be honest. It would be really important to get something like that out there. So there is definitely more technology on the roadmap.”
Among the investors in Molekule
are SoftTech VC
’s Jeff Clavier, who seed-funded Fitbit
, Crosslink Capital
’s Eric Chin, who seed-funded Dropcam
, and an angel investor who seed-funded Nest
“We think that this could be a real game changer for people, so hopefully that means that the company grows,” Rao says. “From our perspective, we would love to [create jobs], and already are. We started out as a team of three, and then we expanded to a team of eight full-time people, and now have many part-timers with us. So we’re expanding and growing really quickly, and I hope that that’s only indicative of a great technology that’s going to hit the market.”