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Published in Economic Development
Rapids Air Quality’s devices for testing air quality in Grand Rapids. Rapids Air Quality’s devices for testing air quality in Grand Rapids. COURTESY PHOTO

GR startup finds purpose with urban air quality mapping

BY Sunday, June 06, 2021 06:00pm

When Darren Riley graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014, he took with him in-demand skills rooted in software development and cybersecurity.

After a couple of years applying those skills as a cyber risk consultant for professional services giant Deloitte, he quickly learned that corporate America was not for him.

“I was really at the intersection of how we bring technology to tackle some systematic issues and solve problems near and dear to my heart,” Riley said.

That is exactly what Riley is attempting to do with his Grand Rapids-based startup Rapids Air Quality LLC. The company, co-founded with James Meeks and Hasib Ikramullah, is working to operationalize the concept of mapping cities with a series of air quality sensors. Rapids Air Quality deploys a network of sensors and feeds the data to its dashboard to create an in-depth map that allows users to get an accurate snapshot of the air quality in individual neighborhoods.

Through a partnership with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), Rapids Air Quality is wrapping up a full deployment in downtown Grand Rapids, which will serve as a proof of concept for the new business. Meanwhile, Riley and his team look to quickly expand by working with their networks in both Detroit and Chicago.

“We’re starting out with the first launch and we’re learning how we can do better and how we can be better stewards of the data to the partners we work with,” Riley said.

On a mission

Riley came to Michigan in 2015 and has remained active in the state’s entrepreneurial scene as a manager at Endeavor Detroit, a network of business leaders that mentors and accelerates startups in Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes region.

Riley attributed the connections made through Endeavor Detroit, and eventually Grand Rapids-based entrepreneurial support organization Start Garden Inc., for plugging him into the Grand Rapids community.

With a simple core mission that all residents of a city are entitled to clean air, Rapids Air Quality formed in April of last year with Riley and his partners currently serving as the only employees in the company. The company could pursue a round of seed funding toward the end of the year, with a target of $1.5 million to $2 million, depending on how it hits its milestones, Riley said.

Meanwhile, the founders are working to build a business model around their service. The full-service model being deployed in Grand Rapids allows cities, nonprofits and corporate donors to subsidize the project implementation and ensuing services.

Still, Riley sees value in providing air quality data to various stakeholders once a city has been fully mapped. Those stakeholders may include nonprofits focused on erasing the inequalities associated with low-income areas of a community to socially conscious businesses that want to protect the areas around their production plants.

“Once we have a whole city, there is a business model where we can package data for certain stakeholders and extract from that pool,” Riley said, adding that the company can provide context around air quality information so interested parties can fully leverage the data.

“For us, it’s about engaging stakeholders where they are at a neighborhood level and educating folks around the community to make the data valuable,” Riley said. “What I mean by valuable is they understand the reading and understand what it means to their families … and to make sure those users are recipients of the data and the services that come after the data.”

Darel Ross, a director with Start Garden, highlighted Rapids Air Quality’s intention to make genuine connections within the communities it serves.

“From a personal standpoint, I am always intrigued by female- and minority-owned tech startup entrepreneurs because usually they’re using and applying tech in a way that’s solving problems that other people aren’t looking for,” Ross said.

Ross also noted the way Rapids Air Quality presents data can be used as a competitive advantage for cities and municipalities.

“We do see a day where, when you go to book your flight to go somewhere, you can also track the air quality of that area where you’re going,” Ross said. 

A boost to business

Last month, Rapids Air Quality gained access to a trove of resources when it was selected for Accelerate Incubation, a program hosted by mHUB, a Chicago-based hardtech and manufacturing innovation center. 

Rapids Air Quality was one of just nine startups accepted into the inaugural cohort for the six-month, hands-on accelerator that focuses on hardtech product development and commercialization. 

Along with the resources available through the program, mHUB issued Rapids Air Quality a $75,000 simple agreement for future equity (SAFE) note, which is convertible for equity in the company.

mHUB features one of the nation’s leading prototyping facilities. Through the program, Rapids Air Quality can explore what type of application-specific sensors it will need for deployments and then work to create them. As of now, Rapids Air Quality uses off-the-shelf sensors, fastening them to light poles throughout a city.

“(Rapid Air Quality’s) philosophy is game-changing and the challenge now is how can you build such an infrastructure,” said Thierry Van Landegem, executive director of mHUB’s accelerator program. “What is the technology you need? Can you just take off-the-shelf sensors and put them everywhere? The answer is probably no; that would come with exorbitant costs. So, how can technology build something that is deployable and at a cost-efficient manner? What is that business model? Those are exactly two areas that we look at in the program.”

Van Landegem said mHUB’s selection committee considered startups’ ability to solve social issues as it combed through nearly 500 submissions. 

“The really disruptive idea is how can we now build an infrastructure that is at the neighborhood level — the community level — to get a much clearer and finer idea of what air quality is so we can think about how to use the information we capture,” Van Landegem told MiBiz.

Grand Rapids benefits

Rapids Air Quality plans to wrap up its deployment in downtown Grand Rapids this month. DGRI funded the project, which Riley and his team completed at their cost.

While the DGRI staff will be able to access the dashboard and its information a week after the deployment, it will need a full year of data to draw any sort of conclusions, said Marion Bonneaux, DGRI’s data and information specialist.

“From my perspective, information like this is really only useful in its own context,” Bonneaux said. “We will be able to monitor overall changes as well as notice the impacts we’ve made year over year related to projects in development around downtown, changes we make to transit and the options people have to traverse our city, and of course our engagements in and around the river as those projects start to kick off.”

Bonneaux also said that this information helps Grand Rapids grow in an environmentally smart way. She encouraged additional neighborhoods and community partners to join the program and steadily expand the information system.

“Integrating real-time information on air quality will bolster our knowledge-based approach for more daily operations, such as event planning and reporting, environmental studies and development decisions, but its primary goal is to grow our data-inspired approach to policymaking and advancements for our community,” she said.

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