The Air99 story began in 2011 in Suzhou, China, a city with a 2,500-year history and a vibrant modern economic and manufacturing ecosystem. Marco Polo dubbed it the "Venice of the East" in 1276 for its extensive network of canals.
Richard Gordon had moved there with his wife and young son so that his wife could pursue her passion for mass-production.
Suzhou was transforming into a 21st-century metropolis. A subway system was dug beneath the ancient canals. Glass-and-steel skyscrapers and apartment blocks rose beyond the old city's stone gates.
As the buildings rose, the air quality fell. Hard.
The sky turned lead-colored with dust, diesel exhaust, and industrial air pollution. Tiny particulates rained from the sky turning clean windows black in a day.
Air pollution causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is linked to 6 of the top-10 killer diseases worldwide. Mega-cities with bad air pollution can reduce resident life-expectancy by as much as 6 years.
Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the concentration of dangerous microscopic particulates (PM2.5) in the air. If inhaled, they can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause COPD.
Between 2012 and 2014, PM2.5 AQI levels in Suzhou ranged between very unhealthy (PM2.5 AQI above 200) to hazardous (PM2.5 AQI above 400). Schools advised kids to stay indoors when PM2.5 AQI levels rose above 100.
Air pollution affects children and seniors more than healthy adults. Children's lungs are still developing. Seniors' lung are diminished by age and disease.
Unable to find a breathable respirator that would fit his son and niece or that was breathable enough for their grandparents, Richard took action.
Richard is an engineer with degrees from Brown and Stanford Universities and a career in engineering that has spanned from Bell Laboratories to small startups. Naturally, he started hacking respirators.
He reasoned that a mask that doesn't fit, doesn't filter air, even if it is made with an N95 filter.
He knew that glasses fogging when he wore a respirator risked his life and that of his son when they rode an electric scooter in Suzhou traffic.
He knew that mask nose wires cut into his skin leaving painful sores after a day of prolonged use.
He knew that respirators were unattractive, got dirty, and couldn't be cleaned or disinfected, creating lots of waste.
He knew that most people he saw wore ill-fitted surgical and cloth masks that offered hardly any PM2.5 protection.
Made in the USA
By the time the family returned to the United States in 2014, Richard's lab notebook brimmed with respirator ideas.
He brainstormed with colleagues and connected with suppliers of the advanced materials needed to build a better respirator.
Then, in a moment of inspiration, Airgami was conceived.
Hundreds of prototypes later, with patents filed, Air99 entered Airgami into the 2019 Reimagining Respiratory Protection QuickFire Challenge sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) ... and won!
Nine weeks after receiving the award COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, and Air99 scrambled to bring Airgami to the market in time to help.
Today, patented, field-tested in pandemic, wildfire smoke, air pollution, dusty yard work, wood shop, allergy season, in-house and independently fit-tested, and independent lab tested by Nelson Labs, Airgami is not just ready, but best-in-class in terms of breathing resistance and comfort.
Airgami changes the landscape of respiratory protection forever. For that, we can all breathe easier.
All images Copyright © 2020 Richard Gordon.