New technology detects unwanted smoke of all kinds and in all places
By MEGHAN PIERCE Union Leader Correspondent
Lebanon-based FreshAir has developed technology that identifies airborne chemicals present in cigarette and marijuana smoke. The company was founded by Dartmouth Chemistry Professor Joseph BelBruno, right, and recent Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College graduate Jack O'Toole. (COURTESY)
LEBANON — A partnership between a Tuck student and a Dartmouth professor — with a little help from Dartmouth’s recently-launched incubator center for entrepreneurs — is poised to take off this spring with new technology that would detect smoking where it is not wanted.
Lebanon-based FreshAir Sensor is just months away from releasing its patent-pending AirGuard technology that identifies airborne chemicals present in cigarette and marijuana smoke.
The company was founded by Dartmouth chemistry professor Joseph BelBruno, FreshAir’s chief technical officer, and recent Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College graduate Jack O’Toole, FreshAir’s chief executive officer.
Helping the business startup has been the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network Innovation Center and New Venture Incubator, also known as DEN for short, which launched last fall.
DEN, which is a regional resource for the community, has helped O’Toole and BelBruno network with other CEOs and garner advice from business attorneys and marketing experts, they said.DEN has been an invaluable resource, BelBruno said.
O’Toole first learned of BelBruno’s invention during a pitch night at the business school when BelBruno presented his invention to a room of 250 people.
BelBruno had started taking classes at the business school to learn more about starting a business based on his idea.
“I’m a scientist, and I’ve read and known of several startups not only started by scientists, but run by scientists, and I don’t think it’s in our skill set,” BelBruno said.
O’Toole said he immediately saw the potential in the technology BelBruno was developing.
“Out of 250 people, only two people were interested, and I was one of them,” O’Toole said. “He said a lot of science words, but what I took away from what he said is, ‘it detected nicotine,” O’Toole said. At the time he thought, “If you can use this to protect people from unwanted smoking, there’s something to that.”
O’Toole and BelBruno were introduced and found they have similar personalities and complementary skills sets, they said.
“We’re a match set,” O’Toole said, who added he was looking for a technology to commercialize.
“I can supply the technical expertise, and that’s what I do. But Jack knows the business end of it,” BelBruno said.
O’Toole focused on the hotel industry at first, knowing it was a market that would want the product.
“Our target was hotels. That was our first thought; we could sell these to hotels,” BelBruno said. “The cost to hotels is much greater than the $250 they will try to charge you for smoking in the room, and they very often don’t get that because people will deny they smoke.”
But the company was soon being contacted by residential properties managers and managers of public housing properties.
“Our horizons were broadened very quickly,” BelBruno said.
Many property managers want to buy the technology and advertise that they can guarantee a smoke-free environment.
“Property management companies see this as an amenity. That people are really interested in a place that could really be smoke free,” O’Toole said.
“They live in a place that is supposed to be 100 percent free, but people still smoke, and its infiltrating other people’s apartments and they don’t like that.”
Protecting people from the adverse health effects of second-hand smoke is the main feature of the device, but it will also save these property management companies money because the cost of cleaning an apartment that someone has been smoking in is 10 times more than a smoke-free apartment, O’Toole said.
Hotel and property managers don’t want to collect smoking fees they want to prevent people from smoking.
The small AirGuard device fits into a standard power outlet and comes with a tamper-proof cover. The device collects data on any smoking activity and sends that information to the FreshAir System via Wi-Fi. FreshAir then informs the client either by email or text message.
“It sends a signal to our platform, and we email the customer immediately that someone is smoking. And when the event is over, when they stop smoking, we send them the chart of what happened,” O’Toole said. “’Somebody is smoking in apartment 203.’ So you have scientific proof that somebody smoked.”
Many potential clients
Right now FreshAir has a long waiting list of potential customers, but is holding off on taking orders just yet, O’Toole said, until they have a delivery date set.
“I think during February I’ll know our delivery date, and I’ll start taking orders,” O’Toole said. “We expect to release our first devices in late March, early April.”
The sensors are being manufactured by a company in Maine, and the outer plastic case is being made by a company in Vermont.
Six people currently work full time at the headquarters in Lebanon, with another five part-time workers who work off site.
As the business takes off, the company plans to hire more people, O’Toole said, from scientists and engineers to salespeople and office staff.