How a simple question grew into PurpleAir
Starting a business is a daunting task, and every origin story is different. Some people know from a young age that entrepreneurship is their path and actively seek out that lightbulb idea that turns into an organization. Others find their skills and savviness through business school, gaining knowledge and industry connections. Look at any major companies in the US today - the Amazons, Googles and the like - and you’ll see that each had a unique origin story. For many, their business has evolved in ways far from what they anticipated on day one.
With PurpleAir, I did not set out to start a business. I set out to answer a question. Along the way, we realized others were burning with the same question, and everything changed. Our origin story is a little different. Here’s how it goes:
How it started
In 2015, I lived near a gravel pit in Draper, Utah, where I, and PurpleAir, am still based. The proximity to the gravel pit meant that when it was windy, dust would blow from the gravel pit into town - and the wind blows a lot around here. The dust clogged up the air to the point where sometimes it made it difficult to see or breathe. There was no way to know just how much dust was in the air and when it was there at night. The nearest EPA sensor was 20 miles away, and a few home sensors existed on the market. But, they were complex, costly or did not provide the features I needed - such as the ability to upload information to the internet. The average person couldn’t access them, which meant an immense knowledge gap between those with the information about their air quality and those without.
I have enjoyed designing and building electronic gadgets for many years and continued to learn firmware and hardware design through different projects while flying radio control models. So I was determined to design and make three of what would later become PurpleAir’s very first real-time air quality sensors. I used a new generation of small and low-cost laser particle counters to measure the number of airborne particles. The sensors run that information through an algorithm to estimate the mass concentration based on that count, which the EPA uses to determine the effects on people’s health. Having this information was empowering, and it soon became apparent that more and more people could benefit from access to the data we were gathering. Soon enough, those three sensors would turn into many more.
In early 2016, we only had about seven sensors and were starting to develop what became the PurpleAir Real-time Map. With the essential building blocks in place and the information collected, it was time to find out if it was any good. So, we sent three sensors - almost half of our supply - to the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s AQ-SPEC (Air Quality Sensor Performance Evaluation Center) program in Southern California for testing. This program tests the performance of low-cost sensors, and the results proved our sensors to be 97% accurate. The most accurate sensor they had tested. From there, it started to blow up. More and more organizations started reaching out - many educational institutions- to test our product and confirm its accuracy. We always felt confident that what we were building was unique and was filling a void in the market. Still, once we got buy-in from the larger community, we knew we were onto something.
Our community approach
I never set out to start a business. PurpleAir stemmed from a simple question: what is the air quality like right where I live, precisely at this moment? When I realized that others might share the sentiment and that I could help solve a problem that exists globally, that question blossomed into a company. So plainly, we set out to empower people with information about their air quality, and I feel we have succeeded in doing so.
The scientific community’s embrace of PurpleAir became more foundation for our business than we could’ve ever imagined. To be clear, we did know from the start that PurpleAir couldn’t be insular. Getting the most accurate, up-to-date information about air quality everywhere meant we needed sensors on the ground in all of those areas. Once we started connecting with local communities and educational institutions, we knew those relationships would be our answer.
Today, we have a network of more than 30,000 sensors to test the air quality and feed that information back to the Real-time Map on our website. Thousands of professional and citizen scientists across the US and around the world maintain and run these sensors or evaluate and run studies on the data. Our citizen scientists are the core of what we do. We believe that this community-driven approach to science is not only what makes us the most accurate air quality sensor but also makes us incredibly sustainable as a business. Our citizen scientists act as the first point of contact if something goes wrong with a sensor so that we can update it as quickly as possible.
Working so closely with this community also means others can use this air quality data. Many of these students and scientists are constantly working on new projects. Our information has become a leading resource that they incorporate into their new and existing work. With the scientific community at our side, we’ve successfully elevated our mission to empowering everyone with air quality information.
There is much more we want to do - developing new sensors, making improvements to the map, and adding features to our services. I’m encouraged by the work we’ve done so far. I also know that no matter how PurpleAir evolves as a company, the information we provide and the empowerment that follows will always carry on. We’ve built a sustainable mission. That’s what we learnt to do, what we’re most proud of, and what we’ll always continue to push forward.
CEO and Founder, PurpleAir