[THE INVESTOR] SAN FRANCISCO — Corporates are increasingly paying attention to working conditions to boost productivity, while building owners are working harder to maximize comfort for their tenants.
These trends, in turn, are creating great momentum for Bitfinder, the San Francisco-based startup behind air quality monitor Awair, which is now aiming to become a game changer in the air monitoring equipment market.
“Most of the top engineering consulting firms here in San Francisco now have a head of sustainability who is in charge of maintaining corporate wellness to put more focus on improving the office environment as well as productivity,” said Bitfinder CEO Ronald Ro in a recent interview with The Investor.
“Healthier growth is expected this year for Bitfinder as the firm has shifted its focus from business for consumers to the one targeting corporates,” he said.
Smart air monitor maker Bitfinder CEO Ronald Ro
LEED, WELL, and Fitwell are some of the certifications that building owners and real estate consulting firms in the San Francisco region are often required to gain. Attaining these certifications often hinge on how many points the buildings score in the air quality category.
Building owners, for example, must evaluate indoor air quality in real time, publicly display the air quality status, and store the related data for up to three years.
“Just like people want to show off their ripped bodies after working out, building owners want to boast the good shape their buildings are in with the certification,” explained Ro.
So far, Bitfinder has rolled out two air monitoring devices, Awair Glow and Awair, which are targeting general consumers, and it will soon unveil a new model, named OMNI, whose target customers are business operators.
Awair’s customers include hospitals in Korea, top US building consulting agencies, and space sharing firms in the US. It has also provided the air monitors to Korean construction firm SK E&C and partnered with a Brown University research team to participate in a research project for environmental influences on child health outcomes. The Awair devices are also compatible with smart home services run by tech firms Nest and Amazon.
Ro, a Purdue University graduate, worked for Boeing, Samsung Electronics, and Cisco before founding the startup with Bitfinder Chief Technology Officer Kevin Cho in November 2013.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
THE INVESTOR: Why do people need an air quality monitor, not an air purifier?
Ronald Ro: That’s a question I get the most. I used to use an air purifier myself, but I found that they don’t always guarantee better air quality. I feel what is more important is analyzing the air data to help people figure out a solution. That’s the value we are trying to offer.
TI: Tell us about your sales.
Ro: I cannot give you the numbers, but Awair is now up and running in more than 2,000 cities in some 60 nations, picking up 40,000-50,000 pieces of data for analysis every 10 seconds.
The OMNI, an air monitoring device that will go on sale this month, is expected to generate more revenues as its main customers will be big businesses. We aim to earn 60 percent of the entire sales from the B2B and the rest from B2C this year.
TI: Who are Bitfinder’s business partners?
Ro: We are partnering with businesses in Korea, the US, the UK and Spain. Some include hospitals, schools, and government agencies that oversee the Spanish public transportation. One of the world’s largest real estate development firms, whose name we can’t mention, is also Bitfinder’s partner.
TI: How much have you raised in investment capital?
Ro: Some of the investors are Techstars, Altos Ventures, Samsung Venture Investment, K Cube Ventures, and the funds we have raised so far stand at 7.7 billion won (US$7.24 million).
TI: Tell us about your team members.
Ro: We have a bit more than 30 members, including co-founder and CTO Cho who is in charge of the technology and engineering part, San Baek, head of strategy and operations, Austen Grossman, product manager, brand and marketing head Nic Barnes, and Bosung Kim, a chief design officer who previously worked for design powerhouse IDEO for 11 years.
Many investors had doubted in the beginning that if I and the CTO, both of whom are Korean, could recruit talents in Silicon Valley. It was not easy, and the first 15 members of the company are those whom we have known for years. Those members later introduced other talents.
TI: Why did you begin the startup?
My daughter had eczema and Cho’s two sons suffered asthma. We were frustrated with the purifiers and humidifiers available on the market and decided to develop the air monitor. Most air purifiers and humidifiers were not as intelligent as I had hoped, failing to tell when users should run the devices to make the air clean and fresh. I did not feel the air was cleaner after running those devices for hours.
TI: Why do you target the US market instead of your home country?
Ro: There is more room for an air monitoring device business to grow in the US market, which is quite different from the Korean market. US consumers do not spend much on purchasing air purifiers, whereas Korean consumers are willing to pay more for an air purifying device due to the fine dust issue. Koreans also choose to be more discreet about air quality, and it took us a while to persuade them otherwise. One of the questions I get often is if we can hide the monitor display, put it on the back of the device or something. But things are changing, and more Korean companies are now choosing to disclose what’s going on, rather than keep it hidden.