Vancouver’s Tzoa wearable sensor tracks air pollution

Clad Innovations hopes to raise $110,000 with Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      Vancouver entrepreneur Laura Moe says that people are affected by their environment in “profound ways”.

      During an interview at the Georgia Straight office, the former nurse noted that air pollution and sun exposure both have an impact on a person’s mood, productivity, and long-term health.

      “If you’re an athlete, if you travel a lot, if you work, if you have children and you live inside your house for a majority of your time, you would be really surprised to know how much your environment affects you,” said Moe, who grew up in Maple Ridge. “And right now we just don’t have that information.”

      Moe is the 22-year-old cofounder and chief marketing officer of Clad Innovations, the local startup behind a $110,000 crowdfunding campaign for a wearable device called Tzoa. Billed as the “first wearable enviro-tracker”, Tzoa will detect and measure particulate matter in the air and ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and display this data in a smartphone app.

      According to Moe, Tzoa—which can be pre-ordered for a contribution of $150 or more on Kickstarter—is similar to the activity trackers that are popular with health and fitness enthusiasts. She noted that pedometers have been around for a long time.

      “If you looked at how many steps somebody took, that encouraged them to get more exercise,” Moe said. “We wanted to mirror that message, but with the environment.”

      Featuring an optical air-quality sensor in a circular metal and plastic enclosure, Tzoa has a diameter of 40 millimetres and a thickness of 12 millimetres. The triangular piece on the front is interchangeable and will come in black, copper, and brushed silver, allowing users to coordinate the device with their personal style.

      Tzoa will measure particulate matter and ultraviolet radiation.

      Unlike activity trackers, Tzoa isn’t meant to be worn on the wrist or attached to a bra or a belt. Instead, it’s designed to be clipped to a backpack or a purse while users are out and about, and placed in a charging dock at home.

      “The way that the hardware works is that there needs to be airflow running through it,” Moe said. “So the moment that you’ve got it against your skin, you most likely will have clothes sit on top of it and then it’s not taking the readings.”

      Moe noted that the particulate sensor works like a smoke detector and measures the concentrations of black carbon, diesel, silica, and other airborne particles that pose health concerns. Tzoa’s Android and iOS app will tell users whether the air indoors or outdoors is clean or dirty, and offer recommendations like opening a window, taking a less-polluted cycling route, or spending more or less time in the sun.

      As well, air-quality data from all of the devices will be aggregated and displayed in real time on a map in the app. Moe said this crowdsourced map will help identify trends and sources of air pollution, which could lead to action by governments and industry.

      “I want the average person to feel like they can participate in environmental decisions and making an impact,” she said. “That was something I always struggled with, because I am really passionate about the environment and want to participate in the decisions that are being made. But it’s really challenging for the average person to be able to do that.”

      Locally, Metro Vancouver is involved in operating 28 air-quality monitoring stations from Horseshoe Bay to Hope, as well as a mobile air-monitoring unit. The regional government displays data from the permanent stations on AirMap, a mobile-friendly web app that’s updated hourly.

      Ken Reid, Metro Vancouver’s superintendent of environmental sampling and monitoring, told the Straight that ground-level ozone and particulate matter are the “top priority” air pollutants in the region. He noted that fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter—known as PM2.5—can be harmful to human health and degrade visual air quality.

      “In many cases, the indoor exposures to particulate matter will dominate,” Reid said by phone from Burnaby. “Cooking sources, for example—so indoor combustion sources—are very important in one’s overall exposure to particulate matter. And outdoors we know that particulate matter is generated in fireplaces and wood stoves used for home heating. So in some neighbourhoods where those sources are prevalent, you will see higher concentrations of PM2.5 generally in wintertime.”

      According to a Metro Vancouver fact sheet, diesel particulate matter—a component of diesel exhaust—is linked to many serious heart and lung diseases, including asthma, cancers, and chronic bronchitis.

      “When inhaled some of these particles are small enough to get past the body’s defences and become embedded deep within the lungs,” the fact sheet states. “The smallest particles can potentially enter the bloodstream directly through the lungs. Emissions from diesel engines are linked to premature deaths, increased hospitalizations and lost work days.”

      An app will tell Tzoa users whether the air is clean or dirty.

      As of December 8, Clad Innovations had received over $49,500 in pledges from more than 300 donors on Kickstarter. In order to receive the funds, the startup must reach its $110,000 goal by December 18.

      Moe maintained that the money is needed to get Tzoa ready for manufacturing. She hopes to release the wearable device in August 2015.

      “When people think of Vancouver, they think ‘really green and clean’,” Moe said. “I think it’s in Vancouver’s blood to start this initiative to take care of air pollution and address it. I think it’s the right crowd.”