Meaningful Business (MB): Can you tell us a bit about the issues you are trying to solve and why you selected them
Paddy Robertson (PR): According to the WHO, over 99% of the world breathes polluted air which causes 7 million premature deaths each year (one in 13 deaths in 2016). Furthermore, it has been shown that the effects of air pollution on productivity, health and crop yields cost 1% of GDP annually (and a much larger figure in some Asian countries, like 2.6% in China). The annual welfare costs associated with premature deaths are estimated to be $3 trillion USD per year, or $500 USD per person.
MB: How is your work tackling those problems, and what impact are you having?
PR: Our solutions solve two critical problems regarding air pollution: lack of education and cost-effective purifiers.
Using a simple DIY concept allowed us to create the first commercially viable, cost-effective purifier that ships for only $31 USD. Our biggest value proposition is that our purifiers are the least expensive in every country we operate in and still remove dangerous pollutants such as PM2.5, PM0.5, and VOCs from peoples’ homes and lungs like any other air purifier, mitigating both short and long-term health effects from breathing dirty air.
At the same time, we provide free and open source air pollution knowledge through in-person workshops and online research articles. To date, we’ve held more than 650 workshops with 150 organisations to provide offline education to over 24,000 people. We have also written over 500 air pollution related articles that have been read over 30 million times in 196 countries.
MB: What support do you need in order to scale your business and increase your positive impact?
PR: Two independent assessments of Smart Air’s impact have shown that Smart Air’s SROI (social return on investment) is positive. We create value for society, however society as a whole doesn’t yet know about us. Right now, we need support and resources to spread the word about air quality issues, including getting access to more platforms to scale our educational impact, help expand the air purification market and promote our products. This could be through access to large companies who work on socially-responsible sourcing, access to press/PR and marketing networks, funding for advertising campaigns and/or collaborations with existing companies and individuals to promote what we do.
MB: How do you work with partners and the wider ecosystem to achieve your mission?
PR: We run educational workshops at schools, embassies, NGOs, and businesses where we teach people about the science behind air pollution, air purifiers, and masks. These organisations include NGOs like The Asia Foundation, Friends of Nature and Greenpeace; Corporations like Google, Microsoft, Airbnb, Mercedes-Benz and Siemens; Schools and universities like Tsinghua University, Peking University, The University of Chicago and The Etonhouse International Schools.
MB: What is your ambition for the future of your business?
PR: Smart Air was created to right a single wrong – the spreading of misinformation and the use of marketing forces to get people to buy overpriced purifiers and part with their hard earned cash. This situation, unfortunately, is the reality in many industries. We see Smart Air expanding beyond just air purifiers, and to other industries where this is an issue. We will continue to use and focus on our tried-and-tested model of data-driven, honest marketing in the hopes that we can fix more and more industries and move the power away from marketing execs and give it back to consumers.
MB: How do you measure success?
PR: We measure our social impact on a bi-annual basis, using a 3rd party assessment. They measure our impact and see the annual value we have provided to society. We aim to achieve greater and greater SROIs at each assessment, thus increasing our overall value to society.
MB: Tell us a mistake you’ve learned from
PR: When others copy your idea, take it as a positive not a negative. When I was younger, I created a startup for which the idea was quickly copied by others. I was disheartened and gave up. In hindsight, I should have known that because I was copied, my idea was a good one, and I should have doubled down on it!
MB: How do you spend your time away from work?
PR: Hiking, biking, climbing! I’m an outdoors person. Getting into and appreciating nature gives my brain the space to recharge and solve difficult problems I may be stuck on. I also love cooking and consider myself a Chinese cook after 8 years of living in Beijing!
MB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
PR: As a manager, you should do everything just once. After that, you should find ways to automate, delegate or expand so that you can continue to keep tackling and solving new problems.
MB: What is something you wish you were better at?
PR: Communication and emotions. I’m a ‘cold, hard engineer’. My brain is analytical – give me a computer or measuring instrument and I can read it with ease! However, get me to read a human being and I may well struggle!
MB: What is the one book everyone should read?
PR: The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace. A 150 year old book from the guy who discovered evolution at the same time (some say before!) as Darwin. It covers everything – travel, nature, society, you name it.
Discover the other leaders recognised on the 2022 MB100, for their work combining profit and purpose to help achieve the United Nations Global Goals, here.