Lebanese entrepreneurs have developed Sensio Air, a device that can monitor particles in the air

Startup Spotlight

Every day we make various choices, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. When it comes to a process as frequent and essential as breathing, are we choosing the type of air that we inhale?

Along with oxygen and nitrogen, which together make up about 99 percent of our atmosphere, the air also consists of one percent of other elements from dust, pollen, microbes, as well as toxic fumes such as alcohol and acetone. These highly irritant chemicals are often used in paints, industrial adhesives, and plastics, and are known to intensify allergic reactions.

But how can we know when these particles have entered our homes? And how do we identify their sources? The answer lies in Sensio Air, according to Lebanese entrepreneurs Cyrille Najjar and Eve Tamraz who developed the product under their startup White Lab.

The device can sense particles as small as one micrometre, including harmful gases, while taking into consideration various parameters that affect air quality, such as temperature and humidity.

Cyrille Najjar and Eve Tamraz, cofounders of White Lab

Cyrille Najjar and Eve Tamraz, cofounders of White Lab

Tracking tiny particles

“Sensio Air is not just an air-monitoring device, it’s an environmental monitoring device that tracks particles down to very fine and minute levels,” said Najjar, a professor at the Lebanese American University and cofounder of White Lab. “It can detect allergens, moulds, dust mites, pollens and differentiate between them. So it can tell you if a particle in the air is from your cat or your couch”.

Few smart air monitors exist on the market today. Birdi, for example, a WiFi-connected device that can track allergens, carbon monoxide and toxic fumes, is still in the beta phase.

“Right now the only thing holding us back from shipping is the life safety certification. The good news is that most of the tests are completed and we’re on-schedule to finish the rest of the tests by the end of the month,” Birdi’s San Francisco-based founders Mark Belinsky and Justin Alvey said in April.

Bitfinder’s Awair on the other hand, launched in 2015, measures similar elements as Birdi, but then analyses their aggregate levels and assigns the air quality a score on a 0 to 100 scale.

Unique algorithms

Meanwhile, an exceptional feature about Sensio Air is that it uses unique algorithms to suggest actions that can improve air quality.

“There are very simple actions you can take. Many indoor allergens for example depend on certain levels of humidity and temperature, such as mould and dust mites. Reducing the temperature by just 2 to 3 degrees and humidity by 10 to 20% can have a huge impact on the allergen level,” explained Tamraz.

An ambassador for Allergy UK, a national charity that supports allergy sufferers, the 26-year old neuroscientist and co-founder of White Lab was recognized as one of five Arab Innovators Under 35 by MIT Technology Review Arab Edition in 2016.

Growing up, both entrepreneurs suffered persistent allergies. While Tamraz was allergic to pollen and cats, Najjar reacted to dust mites. “It’s really tricky to know the source of your allergy. I grew up struggling to breathe most of the time because I didn’t know the sources of my allergy,” explained Najjar.

Such personal experiences motivated the two-member team to design the product and self-fund its development. Soon, they were selected to join the UK-Lebanon Tech Hub’s International Accelerator Program that helped incubate White Lab.

“We were able to spot early on the high potential of the management team, coupled with an extreme commitment and dedication to grow and internationalise their business,” said Alessio Bortone, International Accelerator manager at UK-Lebanon Tech Hub, an initiative by Lebanon’s Central Bank, Banque Du Liban and the UK Government.  

After the initial three-month acceleration phase that Sensio Air went through in Beirut, the co-founders qualified to the second phase of the programme in London. They are currently participating in an intensive six-month period of training, mentoring, and networking.

As it approaches commercialisation, Sensio Air is being released in two phases: first the software then the hardware. The beta version of the app was launched in January and is currently being tested and validated.

“Sensio Air is linked to a mobile application. The user can log his symptoms and the device will learn the types and levels of the allergens. So before these levels are reached, it can send tailored advice on how to improve the quality of the air and avoid an outbreak,” explained Najjar.

The product itself will be on the market by the end of 2016: initially in Europe and online, before being released in other parts of the world including the Middle East. It is expected to retail at a cost of £299 ($434) for consumers.

According to Tamraz, people in the Middle East are increasingly becoming health conscious, and for parents of children with allergies and asthma, the device will be a much-needed solution to improve indoor environments.

“Our entry into the Middle East will start in 2017,” said Najjar. “There are very high pollution levels in the region due to sandstorms and construction, and most businesses lack ventilation in their offices, so Arab cities represent a huge market for us.”