It’s like everyone who lives in China is in an on-off relationship with the nation’s air. Sunny blue days are the honeymoon. You and air can’t get enough of each other. You go on long walks, bike rides, and adventures. But it never lasts long. Soon, you’re hiding in your apartment, afraid to go outside or even open a window. And whenever you read about air, it’s described as “Unhealthy” or “Hazardous.”
If you want to breathe healthily in China, there are a suite of items to get your hands on. Firstly, an air quality app (free). Next, a cheap basic mask that will cost you no more than a few US dollars per disposable mask. Then, a high-quality home air purifier. Expect to shell out hundreds, or even thousands of freaking dollars for this one. Can you guess which of those items is most primed for disruption?
The Shanghai-based startup Mila has its sights set on the indoor air purifier market, where it’s aiming to leverage sleek design, smart features, and a unique business model to gain an advantage over competitors.
The company also has another trick up its sleeve: a founding team of concerned dads.
Do it for the kids
“After 14 years in China, air quality started becoming a serious problem for our family around 2013,” says Mila co-founder Grant Prigge. “We had a perfect storm: my wife became asthmatic, our two-year-old was constantly sick, and I started getting respiratory infections while training for a marathon.”
Grant is not alone – for many living in Shanghai, the winter of 2013 was a turning point. It was the first time that Shanghai saw a sustained, Beijing-style “airpocalypse.”
“I remember, I couldn’t even see across the street,” says co-founder Charles Liao. “At the end of 2013, there was a huge vacuum of people – if they could leave, they left.”
“For my daughter, she’s at an age where she can look outside in the morning and she’ll know if it’s a mask day,” Charles continues. “It’s kinda sad, but it’s been ingrained.”
In that same year, co-founder David Chitayat had his first child – and also began to take air quality more seriously.
The three dads were eager to improve the quality of air that they and their families were breathing – and they were uniquely qualified to do something about it. David had years of experience in manufacturing and sourcing in China, Charles in startups and marketing, and Grant in software development.
Making a good purifier isn’t rocket science. All you need is a HEPA filter (the high-quality filters that capture even the smallest toxic particles) and a fan to pull air through it.
But reality is more complicated. Sites like Taobao overflow with cheap air purifier devices that claim “HEPA-like” performance but skimp out on the filters themselves. On the other end of the scale lay eye-wateringly expensive devices as big as refrigerators.
“Most people buy air purifiers like French wine. They have no idea if it’s good or bad, they just buy the most expensive one they can afford and assume it must be good,” says Grant.
But buying a good, HEPA-equipped purifier is just the beginning. Air purifiers work like air conditioners: if you buy one and pop it in your living room, you can’t expect to reap the benefits in your bedroom down the hall.
Breathing deep at home can quickly become an expensive proposition: one air purifier per bedroom, another for the living room, and more until everywhere is covered. And don’t forget to buy new HEPA filters every few months! It’s no wonder why there’s a market for cheap (if ineffective) HEPA-like knockoffs online.
A new model
The folks at Mila believe they’ve found a way to crack the air purifier dilemma: a subscription model. Instead of buying several expensive purifiers at once, and then – if you remember – buying new filters every few months, the entire process is reduced to a monthly fee.
Starting at RMB 250 (US$38) per month, subscribers get two Mila units for their homes, with new HEPA filters for each unit delivered automatically every three months. The company also offers RMB 350 (US$54) and RMB 450 (US$70) plans to cover two- and three-bedroom homes, respectively. Each plan is based on a two-year commitment, with repairs/replacements covered during that time if anything goes wrong.
“Most people either put off or forget to change their filters on time, making their machines useless,” says David. Even the most expensive air purifier is just a bizarre room ornament unless it’s equipped with a clean filter.
The subscription model also makes Mila a particularly enticing option for places like fitness studios or gyms. While owners may balk at spending a few thousand dollars on a system of purifiers to cover each room, Mila’s prices make sense as a line item on a monthly spreadsheet.
The subscription model isn’t the only way that Mila is shaking up the air purifier market. Since first conceiving of the company, David, Charles, and Grant have aimed to make the device “living room worthy.”
“There are filters out there that look like transformers – it’s not something you want to put in your house, but you have to,” says Charles, who describes some purifiers as looking like bank safes or mini fridges.
The Mila purifier is much smaller and more subtle than many others. It looks a bit like the purifier put out by Xiaomi, but shorter. The Mila team is able to get away with a smaller footprint because the subscription-based model ensures that users can have enough Mila purifiers to cover their entire home – instead of buying one giant filter, putting it in the living room, and hoping for the best.
The purifier is accompanied by a Mila app for iPhone and Apple Watch, with an Android version coming soon. From the app, you can control multiple Mila purifiers, see the air quality stats for each room in your home, and check on the outdoor air quality as well. If you use an Apple Watch, you can even get an estimate of your total air intake that day based on whether you were inside or outside and how much you exerted yourself.
Starting with Shanghai, but not staying there
At its start, Mila is targeting Shanghai’s sizable expatriate community in their homes, offices, and gyms. But Charles is quick to point out, “Mila isn’t oriented only at foreigners – it’s just the first step we’re taking.”
While the Mila founders plan to work out the kinks of their marketing and business model in Shanghai, the company is currently taking pre-orders for units throughout the country. The devices are set to ship in January.
Mila is currently running on undisclosed seed funding raised from its founders’ friends and family. Grant says that the company’s target for the first year is to sell 2,000 subscriptions.
And their timing couldn’t have been better. This winter has marked Beijing’s first-ever “Red Alerts” for smog, wherein the city closed public schools, cracked down on traffic, and taken emergency measures to attempt to clean up the air. Headlines about China’s atrocious air quality may not be reassuring for the billion-plus people who live there, but they sure make for some great marketing.
Charles says the company has already made inroads with potential partners in Taipei, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Singapore, Manila, and Bangkok.
“We speak to our customers as three fathers. We know our customers are buying these units for the health of their loved ones and we take that responsibility seriously,” says Grant. “That’s why we named the company after Charles’s daughter.”
Mila may still have to wear a mask when she wanders outside on smoggy days but, thanks to her namesake company and its three devoted dads, she’ll be able to breathe easily inside.
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