In 2011, Richard Gordon moved there with his wife and young son so that his wife could pursue her career.
While living there, 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.
And as the buildings rose, the air quality fell hard. The sky turned gray with dust, diesel exhaust, and industrial air pollution. Tiny particulates fell from the sky in a constant rain, turning clear windows dark in a day.
The Air Turns Hazardous
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 that, if inhaled, 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). It's advisable to stay indoors when PM2.5 AQI levels rise above 100.
Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because their lungs are developing. Seniors are more vulnerable because their lung capacity is diminished by age.
Unable to find breathable masks that fit children or that were comfortable for seniors, Richard feared for the health of his young son, niece, and their grandparents.
So he took action.
Richard is an engineer with degrees from Brown and Stanford Universities and a career in engineering that began at Bell Laboratories in 1979. Naturally, he started hacking respirators to fit his son.
He reasoned that s poor-fitting respirator doesn't seal against its wearer's face so bad air leaks in, bypassing the filter, even if it's an N95 filter.
He knew that he risked his life and that of his son when they rode an electric scooter in Suzhou traffic and his glasses fogged.
He knew that mask nose wires cut into his skin leaving painful sores after a day of constant use.
He knew that respirators were unattractive, got dirty, and couldn't be cleaned or disinfected, so they created a lot 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 he and his family returned to the United States in 2014, Richard's lab notebook brimmed with respirator ideas.
He brainstormed with friends and connected with suppliers of the advanced materials needed to build a better respirator.
And then, in a moment of inspiration, Airgami was conceived.
Hundreds of prototypes later, with patents filed, Air99 entered the Airgami design 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, the COVID-19 pandemic began and Air99 scrambled to forge partnerships to bring Airgami to the market in time to help.
Today, with patents granted, and having been field tested in wildfire smoke and pandemic, in-house 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.
Because of Airgami, the landscape of respiratory protection is forever changed. And for that, we can all breathe easier.
All images Copyright © 2020 Richard Gordon.