Green Tech: Bringing pristine forest air to the masses

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 12, 2018 - February 18, 2018.
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Aki Soudunsaari, co-founder of Finnish health tech company Naava, grew up in Northern Finland — in a town called Posio, known for its clear lakes and mountainous national park — breathing what he calls “the cleanest air in the world”.

He majored in behavioural and health sciences, and became a teacher but found himself feeling ill and out of sorts every time he was forced to teach a class indoors. The symptoms cleared up magically when he was outside, which was when he realised that it was the quality of the indoor air that was affecting him.

Soudunsaari decided to go back to school to see how he could bring outdoor air into buildings. From his search, Naava (then known as NaturVention) was born. The company makes green walls, which charge and purify indoor air, breathing life back into hitherto enclosed “dead air” spaces.

“Naava’s mission is to reconnect humanity with nature. We do it by combining nature and technology in a new way and introducing pure forest air where people work or spend most of their time,” Soudunsaari tells Enterprise on the sidelines of Slush Helsinki.

Slush is an annual event held in Finland at the end of November every year (in time for the cold and slushy weather). It brings together start-ups and investors from around the world. Last year, it saw over 2,600 start-ups, 1,500 venture capitalists and 600 journalists from over 130 countries.

“The beauty of this product is that it’s furniture. You can just wheel it into your space, plug it in and it starts. We sell nature as a service — that’s a new buzzword,” Soudunsaari chuckles.

How does the green wall work? “We draw air through the roots of the plants to clean it. So it’s like wastewater treatment, only with air. We draw air through the root system, cycle it there and biologically naturalise it, reducing the harmful chemicals. Everything is remotely controlled with a lot of sensors and we send the data to the cloud. We use artificial intelligence to optimise indoor air quality.”

Basically, Soudunsaari says, Naava is trying to create as healthy an indoor climate as possible.

“I was originally a teacher, and I was teaching in a school where they had some chemical problems indoors — a sick building syndrome, so to speak. Within a few months of working there, I found that I was losing my voice a lot, my eyes were dry, I developed sinus infections and was suffering from memory loss. I couldn’t remember my students’ names.”

But these symptoms only appeared when he was teaching health science classes indoors. The moment he stepped outdoors for physical education classes, all symptoms magically cleared up.

“So, the idea was if we just opened the windows and increased the ventilation — because in Finland, we have the purest air in the world — everything would be okay,” says Soudunsaari.

He decided to go back to university to do his doctorate in health science. There, he met Niko Järvinen, who was studying biological water cleaning, that is, using algae pools to clean water.

“And we wondered whether we could utilise that technology to clean indoor air,” says Soudunsaari.

They put the problem through online search engines and found that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) had done studies on how to clean air in space stations.

“Nasa found that plant air purification happens in the microbes in the root zone of the plants, not in the leaves, as people think. In fact, only 2% of air purification happens in the leaves while 98% happens in the roots,” he says.

The two partners started developing biofilters to see how they could draw air through the root systems of the plants.

“We started prototyping the product and testing it out on humans,” Soudunsaari explains. They were suffering from the same maladies that he had been subject to before he embarked on this search.

“We helped a number of them get rid of their symptoms, and sold 20 units before the product was actually ready. And then, within the next year, we killed tens of thousands of plants trying to figure out what’s going on. Once we figured it out, we started automating the products and making them smart. Today, our product is AI-controlled, optimising indoor air quality and humidity all the time.”

In fact, he says, it would work without the greens. “The plants are a decorative part of the machine. The machine is actually a combination of a biological air cleaner, air humidifier and smart green wall. We can do the same without the plants but if you take them out, it’s just a tower.”

Soudunsaari’s background is in behavioural research and health science while Järvinen’s is in biology and sustainability. “So, we were kind of combining those disciplines in coming up with the green walls.”

The green walls are best described as a form of biomimicry that is, using natural systems developed over four billion years of trial and error to solve common, everyday problems.

“There’s a lot of biomimicry outdoors using plants but in this system, one plant is 69 to 249 times more powerful in terms of air purification efficacy. So, having one of our panels is the same as having 4,000 plants in one room. It creates forest air and air purification efficiency,” says Soudunsaari.

The panels may look like no more than a vertical garden but they are much more than that, he remarks. “This is how Nasa envisioned it would be able to clean air in space stations. As that was in the 1980s, Nasa couldn’t come up with a product that worked. It didn’t have the sensors or the platform. In 2012, we had all of that.”

Investors are loving the idea. Naava managed to raise €2.5 million in its seed round and €5.2 million in its series A funding. Its investors include US wellness real estate and technology firm Delos, whose advisory board includes actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Deepak Chopra, and Finnish indoor environment solution company Halton.

Naava has grown from its original two founders to 60 people. It attracted global attention when the World Economic Forum posted its video on its website.

“We got 2,000 different contacts all around the world. People love it. They want to either sell it or buy it. We now have ongoing negotiations with companies from countries all over the world. For instance, we’re talking to all the biggest countries in Asia, such as Korea, Japan and China.

“We’ve been working with all the Temasek portfolio companies in Singapore, and their arms in Malaysia such as Capital Land Sdn Bhd,” says Soudunsaari.

There are a lot of different players who would like to be a part of this — property developers, facilities management companies, those who provide greens for office interiors and furniture companies, he adds.

“This is a kind of furniture, so a lot of furniture companies are interested in selling this. When you think of office furniture, you have a desk and chair and a cabinet … this is a new category for office furniture companies.”

But it is not about selling green walls to businesses. Both partners see a greater purpose in what they are doing and their ambitious aim is to reach one billion people by 2025, bringing the purity of Nordic air to the world.

Soudunsaari says the next global trend in real estate will be to create human-friendly buildings that are developed with a focus on people’s health and wellness. “In the modern world, we spend 90% of our time indoors, where we breathe man-made, synthetic air and are often disconnected from nature.

“We at Naava are reconnecting humanity with nature, by embracing millions of years of natural innovation with the latest technologies and modern design.”