Air Quality: State of Play in the UK

What does the air quality business landscape look like in the UK? What are the challenges and opportunities for innovation, where’s the government support and who are the key players in this sector?

Growth Studio – who run the world’s largest air quality accelerator programme for clean air startups – recently hosted a webinar that brought together two diverse clean air experts to unpack some of these questions. 

Francesca Brady, Co-Founder and CEO of AirRated and Kevin O’Malley, Innovation Lead at Innovate UK led an open conversation, hosted by Gaby Jesson, PR Director at Growth Studio –  about the state of play in UK air quality.

Francesca kicked off the conversation by explaining why she decided to focus on developing a business focused on indoor air quality. ‘When I was doing my Masters in indoor air quality, it was generally considered a dark art! My focus was about creating a meaningful tool that could provide transparent data about the quality of indoor air spaces – that everyone could understand!’

Conversely, Kevin O’Malley was drawn to the air quality sector because in his words. he has ‘always been fascinated by the way technologies can help and transform society to progress and become successful’.

Both AirRated and Innovate UK had recently published public reports around the topic of clean air so the webinar started with an exploration of their report highlights.

Kevin led an in-depth Innovate UK Report about understanding and reporting the clean air sector. He reflected on the breadth of diverse clean air initiatives under way,  across a number of different stakeholder sectors – which are not all connected or aligned.

‘If I was to try and synthesise the report into a two word summary, it would be ‘fragmentation and opportunity.’ We have to recognise that the clean air domain is highly fragmented. In some ways, that’s been a necessity due to the complexity of the sector and the types of different players and approaches – from monitoring to mitigation’. 

However as Kevin also acknowledged, the clean air challenge is global and that’s an opportunity for UK business. Tackling air pollution is an area where the UK is recognised and celebrated for world leading research and innovation excellence.

Kevin added that with the right encouragement and support, we can move away from a fragmented picture into a more cohesive clean air sector. But as outlined in the report, there’s a fair few steps we need to take to get there and a whole range of recommendations for a multitude of different players including but not confined to Innovate UK, industry,  government, health practitioners and innovators. As he says:

‘If we can bring together that mutually supportive cohesion, clean air innovation could be a really powerful sector in the UK economy’.

Gaby from Growth Studio posed a question about the responsibility of startups and innovators. What can entrepreneurs do to help knit together disconnection in the sector? 

Kevin believes that unlocking guidance and support through connecting and networking is key and Francesca Brady from AirRated agreed and added her own perspective. In her words, the Government sets a minimum quality benchmark such as building regulations. And then also clean air businesses should be working together, creating partnerships and so on. That is one single area of joint and minimum responsibility but equally there’s a more ambitious approach about best practice. How to futureproof a building for example. To a point where developers wouldn’t construct a building without having to adhere to the highest standards. 

‘We need to work together as an industry to elevate the challenge. To join the dots. To take charge as experts – where we can work with the government to make this sector less fragmented. A good example is the air quality grant scheme. It is awarded annually and goes to each local council and each council deploys the grant differently. Perhaps there could be a more unified approach. A standard that had to be adhered to by all councils to optimise clean air – this might close the gap more quickly’

Gaby from Growth Studio suggested that perhaps a single strong voice representing the clean air sector in the UK was missing. A shared voice with one mission?

Francesca responded that there are many air pollution lobbying groups but not a key stakeholder at government level. Kevin agreed and shared that he had recently been involved in cross governmental discussions about air quality. The process involves many different parts of government – The Department for Transport, DEFRA, Housing, Department of Health, local government, business and trade. But unfortunately, no single department owns clean air responsibility which is a challenge.

Kevin subsequently shared how a joined up government approach has worked to focus on  Net Zero goals. It’s a way we could be tackling clean air. Perhaps we need to move more closely to align with the Net Zero momentum because, in fact, many of the initiatives that are being undertaken to resolve Net Zero challenges, will have a positive effect on clean air. And if we can connect clean air to Net Zero more broadly, it will give the sector more visibility and enable impact.

Francesca added that there is a potential conflict between Net Zero and indoor air quality. Because if the goal is about reducing energy consumption, we could inadvertently be lowering rates of indoor ventilation, thereby reducing indoor air quality. But she agrees, there needs to be more government inclusion with appropriate legislative measures. Francesca shared that often her clients are confused about minimum government standards within buildings – which are way too low and should not be the ultimate aim.

Is education an important part of an effective clean air strategy? 

Kevin responded that ‘the needle moves with public sentiment and public sentiment is inspired by simple yet emotive narratives. Not enough people are triggered by particular concentrations of pollutants but they will respond to human impact stories around mortality and illness. It’s that kind of awareness that will effect change’ 

To wrap the conversation, Francesca shared her own experience of launching a successful clean air startup. She recognised that as her potential B2B customers could not see air – good or bad – they couldn’t navigate the solutions – and some were investing in technologies they didn’t really need. 

‘So we positioned AirRated in the market as a resource to help understand what clients are currently working with, and a roadmap for them to implement the right solutions. And we also made things easy to understand. In the past, air quality reports were really confusing so we wanted to be as simple and straightforward as possible. And because we are about certification, we acted as a useful guide for the right solutions for their spaces.

‘We had some initial private capital and then we formed strategic partnerships with some of our client base where they would forward fund many of their buildings, enabling us to demonstrate both market appetite and credibility in the property industry – which is a very small industry. We also capitalised on the fact that customers were actively pursuing differentiation in the market’.

What one thing should our cohort do right and what should they definitely not do? 

Kevin shared that startups should focus on creativity and quality – and importantly trust through quality assurance. Giving customers the confidence that the data they are seeing is underpinned by rigorous research. Perhaps also focus on a distinct user experience that could apply across all markets.

Francesca added that crafting a business story is so important. This story is not confined to the founder but is about the business, the team and the impact of your solution. And finally? Avoid doing too much for free or at cost. Sometimes it’s a good tactic to get the ball rolling but don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of and disappear down the discount route.

More information about Growth Studio here.

More information about AirRated, here

More information about Innovate UK here


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