Qasim Ahmed works as the CEO of Planet Airo in Berlin, Germany. He seeks to create products that are the powers behind the change, are on the front lines of innovation & blazing a new future, and can be the tools for changing the world. We spoke with Qasim about his experience with Planet Airo and his latest products, particularly the air-purifying bike that eliminates pollution from the environment as consumers ride it.
What do you mean by making cities breathable, and what is your innovation at Planet Airo that enables this?
Our goal at Planet Airo is straightforward as we want to make cities breathable for the people who live in them. What I mean by that is that currently, most of the world is full of air pollution. So we thought that we could take simple everyday products, such as bicycles, to transform cities into places with little to no pollution by adapting these products into air purifiers. Here at Planet Airo, we set out to simply transform bicycles into air purifiers that will let people breathe cleaner air.
You’re telling me that on top of the benefits of riding a bike when compared to, say, a car, bus, plane, etc., you are enabling consumers to have the added benefit of cleaning the very air that they are breathing around them?
Absolutely! Now just imagine if all of your friends and everybody else in a given city had one of our innovative air-purifiers on their bikes? The air quality for not just individuals but throughout the city would dramatically improve. This has immense potential in over-polluted towns where children regularly breathe in toxic air as they go to school or average workers find themselves continuously breathing polluted air when performing basic tasks. Thus, when we consider how breathing is one of the few things we cannot stop doing, this technology allows us to pursue what we believe at Planet Airo is a fundamental human right: access to clean air. So if we can make simple changes to bikes, then imagine the endless possibilities!
So, what materials are you using in your innovation that makes it possible to purify the air from one’s bike?
We use a patented technology that is laboratory tested and is based on a carbon-based filter, which can absorb most kinds of pollutants that are in the polluted city. We took widely available technology, science, and materials. Still, we simply put them all together into a new concept and product that could be made widely available in the public market.
Do you have any plans to use other materials in the future that could even further improve this product’s antipollution capacity?
Technically, that is a secret, but I can say that we are working on new things to improve the product! They’ll be based around a material that is already widely consumed around the world; Wool!
Wool can absorb a lot of air pollution. So currently, we're working on developing products made from that material since it acts as a natural filter that we are confident will absorb pollution at a much higher rate. I hope it’s okay that I let out a small secret that we are already working on, but oh well!
So you’re taking products that already exist in the world and then simply repurposing them as tools to absorb pollution from the atmosphere?
That’s exactly right! We're looking at materials that are regularly thrown out and no longer helpful to consumers (i.e., wool sweaters). Then, we take those excellent quality material items and shred them down into reusable filters. Our goal is to use materials that Nature has given us and are still helpful but usually end up in landfills. So our team thought to ourselves, why don’t we look to create something meaningful that avoids further polluting the world and cleans it up as well.
Why are you interested in working with PUZZLE X?
To me, PUZZLE X is the only place where science meets new ideas in the frontier materials world at the moment. Our team sees the conference as a melting pot of talent. The event will present Planet Airo with an excellent opportunity to show ourselves off because we are just starting. We want to show the world that something like a bicycle can be adapted using existing technologies and materials to clean the air! With the help of PUZZLE X, we will be able to even further our goal to create products, materials, or technologies that will ultimately make the world a better place. Therefore, our motive is to be part of this journey with PUZZLE X and help do something meaningful with like-minded, talented people who believe in this current material innovation revolution.
Planet Airo is only about two years old; what drove you to create this start-up and pursue this vision?
I was inspired to pursue this vision because the simple fact struck me that more than 8 million people worldwide die from air pollution every year. When my team and I saw that, we began searching for simple solutions that would make cities smarter and more breathable, but we were again struck by how few solutions existed. Therefore, we began formulating ourselves about how we could solve this problem, which is killing millions of people, and committed ourselves to do something. After intense internal discussion, we thought about how we could transform bicycles, which are already used by such a large part of the population, into air purifiers that could make cities healthier and safer for everyone.
What advice do you have for people wanting to enter the startup world?
Be ready for a lot of hard times. There will be many ups and downs, so one recommendation I can give is to have a lot of friends around you who can help you in times of need. The reason is, that when you are starting off, you will need help from like-minded people that constantly remind you never to give up.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far at Planet Airo?
The biggest challenge for us is that the problem we are trying to solve is invisible. Most people are still very unaware of the pollution problem they encounter daily and don’t know that they breathe in polluted air more often than they imagine. Bringing those people to understand their reality is quite a challenge when they cannot see the problem in front of them. We are looking to overcome this education curve surrounding air pollution by creating awareness and educating people about the invisible dangers they may be living with.
What are the next steps for Planet Airo?
Currently, we’re only working bicycles, but we have a few cool ideas in the pipeline. Imagine if we took this technology and applied it to trams that are going across a city or any other form of transportation, in particular cars, where everything that is moving on a street has been transformed into a mobile air purifier that is cleaning the city air as it moves through that same city. As you can see, there are a lot of excellent potential products that we can work on, and we hope that we will be able to make them available shortly.
Could this technology and product be used on stationary objects across a city, such as lamp posts?
We never really thought about stationary objects, but this is an excellent area that we could leverage since so many objects, such as lampposts, are just standing around throughout a city. But the reason we’ve started with bicycles is because they are actively moving things that come across a more significant amount of pollutants due to their movement and therefore are having a considerable impact on the pollution across multiple levels. But we might start considering existing static structures as well.
How would this technology work with cars specifically?
We are still asking ourselves how do we make the best product out of something that is such a heavy contributor to city pollution. Right now, we are testing a few potential ways to combat this problem. One way is that we attach the product directly onto the tailpipe, while another idea is that we have something attached to the front of the car, where the purifier is in the grill right next to the hood of the vehicle where it will get maximum exposure to the car’s pollution and therefore be able to absorb as much as it possibly can right from the source. But right now, we are still looking to catch the pollution as it comes out from the car versus directly as it is generated by the vehicle. That being said, we are hoping that several programs we are hosting, such as what we’re calling the first Air-Purifying Race, will help achieve these goals in the future by further raising awareness.
Tell me more about this Air Purifying Race?
We’re excited about this initiative! Like Formula One or Moto GP, we thought we could create a race with bicyclists looking not necessarily to go the furthest distance but would be rewarded based on how fast and how much air pollution they are cleaned up. We’ve already created a race map that tracks through known high pollution areas and asked people to bike in those areas to see who can clean up the most in a given month. The goal is to raise media and educational awareness around city pollution in a fun and exciting way since that is the best way to bring new products to the market. We also think this could create a lot of potential future jobs as people are hired to clean up the air, similar to how trash is handled already in many cities. But at the moment, we are just hoping to hype up this technology through a Red Bull-esque race.