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Why It’s Time To Invest in Clean Air Innovation

Here’s a question; a couple in fact. What do we need to do to combat air pollution? What scale of funding and innovation do we need to put on the table? What regulation do we need to impose on industry? 

The uncomfortable answer is substantially more than we have today. 

Despite much of the noise, the pulse of clean air innovation has hovered somewhere between critical and in need of life support. And yet, the healthy momentum in climate tech investment overall, tells a completely different story. 

Investment in climate tech remains strong – and growing. Climate-tech startups made up over 25% of total VC investments during the first three quarters of 2022., according to PWC’s State of Climate Tech Report

80% of investors surveyed by PWC plan to increase their investment in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) products over the next twenty-four months. And according to Nasdaq, this comes at a time when more than a quarter of venture capitalists plan to invest in climate tech over the next twelve months.

And even more encouraging, despite a war in Europe, double digit inflation, and a sharp correction in the capital markets, climate tech markets have shown encouraging resilience. 

But there’s a big choking elephant in the room.

In the epic book of climate and impact innovation, there is but a small footnote on clean air innovation. Why? Lack of investor appetite to fund early stage technologies, perceived challenges pitching solutions to governments, and the conflation of air pollution solutions with carbon capture solutions – these have been the main drivers. Kevin O’Malley from Innovate UK also cites a lack of cohesion in the UK. If you want to explore this further, read my article here.

But poor air quality is a global health issue that is getting bigger and crucially, more visible all the time. 38,000 premature deaths in the UK every year and 7 million premature deaths worldwide hit the headlines recently. And these are just the numbers we know about, or can attribute to air pollution.

The cost of air pollution

Air pollution is a public health emergency – and a global one at that, according to the The World Health Organisation. 

A recent global report analysed that the dirty air we breathe into our lungs every day has a significant impact on our health span from pre-birth to old age. Lung cancer & lung disease, heart disease, dementia, brittle bones, stunted lung growth and mental ability. And this is just what we know. 

Governments are now seeing the cost of doing little or nothing to combat the problem. In England, the total cost to the NHS and social care is predicted to be £1.5billion by 2025, and £5.1billion by 2035. In the US, it’s estimated to cost $2.6 trillion by 2060. 

Where air is polluted, the very act of breathing is killing us.

Air pollution is a wide ranging beast 

And it’s hitting us from all angles; it’s not just an idling bus on the high street that’s causing the air we breathe to be toxic. Major other contributors include construction sites, transport, freight, logistics and agriculture. And that’s just outside. We are also bombarded with toxic pollutants inside from indoor combustion byproducts (cooking, gas stoves, wood burners, boilers), cleaning products, tobacco, building materials and mould……the list goes on.

Nowhere is this impact felt more strongly than amongst people who live in cities and urban environments. It is especially pronounced among the clinically vulnerable, minorities and poorer socio-economic communities.

“Someone from the most deprived section of society is 2.5x more likely to have COPD and nearly twice as likely to develop lung cancer as someone from the least deprived section of society”. Asthma and Lung UK

Air pollution is now daily news

The impact of air pollution creates (digital) headlines every single day. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new and well publicised book ‘Breathe’ talks about his diagnosis of adult onset asthma, due to his marathon training alongside London’s roads. And London holds the tragic record accounting for the first recorded air pollution related death of Ella Kissi Debrah aged just 9 years old.

The devastating data linked to toxic air and its impact on our mortality worldwide is real. Surely now is the time to seek out and support innovators in clean air technology? With more pace and energy than we have done before. 

In this article I re-assess the power behind air pollution solutions as part of the climate tech cookie jar. And not just for reasons of ESG or social impact. The investor community is already benefiting from stability, buoyancy and ROI in climate technology innovation. Clean air is the next big opportunity.

We recently launched Breathable Cities, an accelerator programme for clean air startups in partnership with Impact on Urban Health. It’s our knowledge, commitment and confidence in this startup sector I’m here to share with investors.  . 

5 Reasons To Invest in Clean Air Technology 

There’s a massive global market

The size and permanence of the problem is not reflected in the number of solutions coming to market. Solutions developed for London, Belfast, Glasgow or Cardiff can easily scale to Delhi, Shanghai, Sao Paolo and Las Vegas. 

The market is highly underserved, global and scalable. It’s recession-proof, trend-proof, has access to government funds and regulation to support solutions.

It should be an investors’ dream.

Air pollution in plain sight

Although air pollution isn’t tangible or visible, its human impact is out in the open. And what’s more, we know what’s causing it. It’s a high profile problem in need of an urgent solution. 

The UK Government’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 addresses the role of local government in tackling poor air quality, acknowledging that “the current legislative framework has not driven sufficient action at a local level” and that a new Environment Bill would contain measures to rectify this.

A government commitment to fix poor air quality is in the public domain even though action to date has been slow. 

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”

The words of Winston Churchill. 

The pandemic experience, particularly in cities, is etched into the hearts and minds of people across the world for many reasons. But it wasn’t all negative. 

An average 48% reduction in traffic and nitrogen dioxide from exhaust fumes in London meant that people could reclaim the streets. Walk, ride bikes and enjoy healthier ways to travel across the city. Post Lockdown, a survey by London councils shared that 9 out of 10 Londoners were supportive of measures to improve air quality.  And London Mayor Sadiq Khan was re-elected in 2021 with his well publicised commitment to clean London’s air.

No doubt a better lived experience for Londoners has unexpectedly ignited a new demand to  improve air quality. And nothing incentivises invention more than a shared disaster.

Rules and regulation

Governments & regulatory bodies worldwide are increasingly implementing stricter air quality standards and regulations. And businesses have no choice. They need to take action.
Investing in clean air technology enables air polluting industries to meet these regulations, avoid penalties and maintain social and environmental responsibilities. 

Proactively adopting clean air technologies, companies can stay ahead of evolving regulations and ensure sustainability.

Open funding and innovation support

Clean air Innovation is under way and structured support is developing.

Breathable Cities is the UK’s first accelerator programme for clean air startups, curated by us and our team at Growth Studio. And we understand that similar clean air programmes are emerging across Europe. 

We are supported by Impact on Urban Health, part of Guy’s & St Thomas’ Foundation, a charitable foundation with a mission of health equity, including impact investing for health. Their Health Effects of Air Pollution programme explores how people’s health is affected by poor air quality and tests solutions to reduce this harmful impact.

The funding support we have received is also sign-posted by Innovate UK’s Kevin O’Malley in his recent report about the clean air tech sector. The Clean Air Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) is a UK Research and Innovation programme which will run until 2026. It’s aim? To enhance high quality research and innovation to help develop practical solutions to air quality issues and equip the UK to proactively tackle future air quality challenges. It includes stakeholders and experts across industry, academia, the third sector and more to better understand how air quality issues take shape and can be solved across sectors.

If we enable air quality inventors and all the players in the air pollution combat zone from research, experts and lobbying come to light, investors will see the demand for solutions and associated blue sky opportunities (literally)

Clean air solutions have been way too hidden in the success story of climate technology. At Growth Studio we champion their exciting future. 

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