After months planning and secret activity, we can finally come out into the open and announce the launch of the Breathable Cities accelerator programme, with our partners Impact on Urban Health. It's a programme - the biggest of its kind - dedicated to finding and nurturing the most innovative, exciting, investable and scalable startups who can eliminate and reduce air pollution in cities.
Our fourteen-week programme has big ambitions. We want to find the best startups in the UK tackling air pollution in cities, surround them with those at the cutting edge of air quality innovation, industry, policy, and investment, and help them drive bigger impact, quicker. The startups will be immersed in a curated community best-placed to help them validate their solutions and business model, increase their leads and revenue, and build the foundations for solid, scalable, investible businesses.
Air pollution is "everybody's problem and a problem at all times" Chris Witty, England's chief medical officer
As a recap, the UK government attributes between 28,000 and 35,000 premature deaths each and every year from air pollution, with (conservative) estimates putting the number of deaths globally at over seven million. Long-term exposure can also lead to “reduced life expectancy [from] cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and lung cancer” according to UK government reports.
Air quality is a complex beast; it’s not just that dastardly idling bus on your local high street that’s causing the air we breathe to be toxic; major other contributors include construction sites, transport, freight and logistics, agriculture and industry. 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, mould… the list goes on.
No more is this impact felt among people who live in cities and urban environments, and it is especially pronounced among the clinically vulnerable, minoritised, and poorer socio-economic communities.
"Having a lung condition makes you more susceptible to harm from toxic air. 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
And it’s a problem in every city, in every country, every day. And it needs to be addressed more aggressively, much quicker, and with greater urgency.
So with such a global problem, why are we not inundated with new solutions from the startup world?
To answer that, we have to consider the challenges investors and startups face.
In our research, we’ve uncovered a number of common challenges investors see in investing in air quality startups;
- The B2G issue. Many startups sell to governments, local councils, and large organisations, all notorious for long, slow, laborious tender processes, iffy about new companies, and lacking on the innovation front. The long sales cycles and culture of the buyers puts investors off.
- The intangibility of the problem. Yes, it's a global problem. Yes, it kills. Yes, it's an issue, but …. Can you touch it? See it? We’ve heard that the lack of a problem you can see, feel, and taste makes it harder for investors to get on board.
- The burst of the monitoring bubble. Many investors saw the rise and fall of air monitoring startups and solutions, few of whom have turned into the go-to solution that had been predicted.
- Impact. Frankly, it's really hard to meaningfully assess the impact of an early-stage solution in a manner that excites investors.
- The carbon capture dilution. As one founder put it “everyone conflates carbon capture (sexy) with air pollution (less-so). It means that investors think they may be investing in air quality when they aren't.”
And as for startups, the environment is tough.
- Air Quality startups are capital-intensive endeavours at their early stage; they need software, hardware and smart expensive people engineers, data scientists, and environmental experts.
- Measuring and solving air quality often means depending on city-wide infrastructure; other people's buildings, streets, monitors, and data. This introduces complexity.
- Many founders are engineers. They’re ‘product-people’ and not necessarily entrepreneurs or serial founders meaning they also have to learn how to run a business and fundraise
- Validation is tough. Data to help validate and model is available - but not always obvious to find. Similarly, experts are out there and want to help founders, but often not in the places a lot of founders have access to.
- The ecosystem is vocal but fragmented. There are lots of passionate people wanting to help, but few - if any - places to centralise knowledge, learnings, skills, and hang out. It means access to people for help, introductions, expertise, and support is hard to find.
- Air quality-specific investors are hard to find. Those who invest in hardware, tech, Smart-cities or sustainability are often open to hearing pitches, but only a handful would certify themselves as ‘air quality investors’.
We want to change this. We want to showcase to the industry that high-quality investments can be made, that the route to market for founders, can be made simpler, and that we can remove many of the unfair biases towards air quality startups.
But we also have an elephant in the room to address; those most likely to be exposed to air pollution and suffer the health effects from it, are those least likely to contribute to it.
This is where our partners Impact on Urban Health come in. Part of Guy’s and St. Thomas Trust, they focus on improving health in inner-city areas, like London, and are at the forefront of tackling the complex issues that impact our health.
Air quality (and in particular, the Health Effects of Air Pollution) is one of their four core ten-year programmes. The health inequalities of air quality are made more profound by the quality of housing, access to health care, and proximity to busy roads. Air quality overwhelmingly affects the most vulnerable, overlooked, and marginalised people in cities.
Bluntly, most founders build according to their areas of expertise and lived experiences, as do investors invest in the areas they are most passionate, experienced and comfortable with. And so? The solutions coming to market don't support those who need them most. Startups aren't getting the early support and capital they need and investors aren't spending the time to really review the potential startups dealflow that exists.
So in summary:
- We have a global problem, killing thousands in the UK, and millions globally, and it’s getting worse each day.
- But it's hard for startups to break into the sector and for investors to provide the capital and support they need.
- The ecosystem is passionate but fragmented.
- Solutions that do succeed aren't always helping those that need them most.
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What started as a chat with Impact on Urban Health about how startups could be added to the mix of solutions to solve the most complex of air quality challenges in cities developed into a brief, evolved into a plan, and is now a concrete programme. Breathable Cities was born, and today, launches.
Is it risky? Yes. Are we scared? Quite. Sleepless nights? All of them.
And yet, here is where it gets exciting.
We have taken all of the challenges we’ve seen that have prevented the most innovative, exciting, scalable startups from seeing their deserved light of day, and designed a specialist investor-readiness programme dedicated to startups tackling air pollution in cities. We want to build on the brilliant work that is already happening in the UK, and supercharge it.
We’ve called it Breathable Cities, because it’s precisely what we are aiming for.
We are looking for startups tackling air quality and reducing air pollution from multiple angles; those that can be applied indoors, in construction, to freight and transport. And while we believe that the biggest impact is stopping pollutants from being prevented from being put into the environment in the first place, we are also looking at solutions that reduce pollutants and people coming into contact with one another, as well as those that suck in and capture them once they are airborne.
Over fourteen weeks, we will be helping early-stage startups understand how to raise investment in the harshest of economic conditions and market sectors. We’ll be supporting them with the core business fundamentals to build a profitable, scalable global business. We’ll help them navigate the complexities of fundraising, from building the best data rooms to delivering persuasive investor pitches. From Day One founders will be validating their solutions - from a product, market and investment perspective - with investors, industry, experts, and government.
They'll leave the programme as confident, investible founders; ready to scale, build, get investment, make an impact. They'll be - dare I say it - equipped - to overcome the indifference and scrutiny of the most challenging of investors, and ready to prove that air quality startups are a brilliant investment.
We’ve made it a hybrid in-person/online programme to make it open to as many founders as possible. Each startup will be given £10k in a non-equity grant to cover expenses to make the most of the programme.
To date, we’ve spoken to over 60+ founders, 100+ startups, groups and networks, 15+ NGOs, numerous government organisations and councils, and all the investors we know.
It’s happening and we’re going big. Applications are open now, and close on 19th May. We will kick off the programme 26th June.
So ... Get In Touch. Apply for the programme. Ask to meet the startups.