Like 50 million people in the U.S., Dilip Goswami is affected by nasal allergies. They were especially bad when he was a kid, often aggravating his asthma, and sending him to the hospital on several occasions.
"It was always a struggle," Dilip says today.
Back in the mid-1990s, Goswami's father, Yogi, was a professor researching solar energy at the University of Florida. Seeing his son's troubles inspired him to study new ways of purifying the air in his home.
The result, more than 20 years in the making, is Molekule, an air purifier that the Goswami family says is the most effective on the market. Molekule promises to not just trap pollutant particles--which is how most purifiers work--but also destroy them on the molecular level. The product launches to the public on the company's website on Wednesday.
Yogi, his son, and his daughter Jaya officially formed the company in 2014. The purifier uses technology that Yogi started developing back in 1996, when he would create prototypes and set them up in Dilip's room.
"Some were partially effective," Dilip says. "It took a lot of experimentation in the lab to get here."
In 2009, Yogi started experimenting with light and nanoparticles, which in tandem could break down pollutants into their most basic elements. Dilip and Jaya, both of whom earned master's degrees in engineering from Stanford, soon began helping their father develop the technology. Dilip would test the prototypes in his bedroom, finding that his symptoms practically disappeared.
By 2014, they decided they had the makings of a full-fledged company. Together, the three became Molekule's co-founders.
"I was seeing firsthand the difference it was making in my life," Dilip says, "so I became really motivated to help take this from lab technology to something that was a real product."
Jaya isn't an allergy sufferer herself, but she saw the impact the tech had on her brother and says she "started to think it belonged out in the world."
A new kind of purifier.
Headquartered in San Francisco, Molekule now has 22 employees. Dilip serves as CEO, Jaya as COO. Yogi, the company's chief scientist, is based back in Florida, where he also serves as the director of the Clean Energy Research Center at the University of South Florida.
Trapped dust, mold, chemicals, and allergens often make indoor air more polluted than the air outside even in the most polluted cities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The Goswamis claim that Molekule's technology is far more effective than what's currently available to clean up that indoor air. The most common household purifiers, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, have been around since the 1940s, when they were developed to remove dust from the air during the Manhattan Project.
That technology, they say, is fairly effective at pulling larger pollutants out of the air, but that can bring about new problems. "HEPA filters collect dust, and that dust ends up becoming a breeding ground for things like mold and bacteria. All those things can ultimately get re-released back into the air," Jaya says. "That's where our technology is completely different. We're not just capturing--we're actually destroying those pollutants so they're no longer affecting people."
Molekule's purifier uses a process called photo electrochemical oxidation (PECO). As it sucks air into it, it coats pollutants in a specially formulated nanoparticle. Light shines on the particle, which initiates a chemical reaction that breaks the pollutant's molecular bonds. The company says the two-foot-tall cylindrical device can completely purify the air in a 600-square-foot room.
The company says its purifier can destroy particles 1/1,000th the size of those caught by HEPA filters, including bacteria, mold, viruses, and pathogens like E. coli--claims that the University of Minnesota and USF's Center for Biological Defense independently tested and confirmed.
Ready for the public.
After several rounds of $499 preorders, during which it sold 5,000 units, the startup now sells the product for $799 on its website. The company is confident the launch will be a success: Over the past year, it performed 49 controlled beta tests among allergy sufferers. Dilip says that over the four-week trials, allergy sufferers' symptoms diminished to levels of non-allergy sufferers, with a high degree of statistical significance.
"It's been amazing to see," Dilip says. "And that's just the quantitative side. The stories have been really impactful. One tester said it gave her her son's childhood back."
Due to the tight governmental controls, the company can't directly test its purifier's effectiveness at destroying the pathogens that cause common illnesses. "But we have tested with a number of proxies that cover the range of different viruses," Dilip says, "and we've worked with labs that do testing with the FDA to verify that we can destroy those viruses. So certainly we can say based on that that this should be effective against flu and cold."
Molekule isn't the only company trying to reinvent the air purifier. Silicon Valley startup Wynd recently launched a portable device meant to create a "bubble" of cleaner air around you at all times. At $199, that product is cheaper, though it doesn't claim to eradicate particles at the molecular level.
The Goswamis' startup received a grant from the Department of Defense during its research and development stage, and it's earned several grants from the EPA. Its most recent $10.1 million funding round, which includes investments from VC firms including Crosslink Capital and Softtech, brings the startup's total funding to $13.9 million.
Eventually, the startup wants to develop larger-scale versions that can be used in hospitals, schools, and office buildings.
"We're not stopping on the R&D front," Jaya says. "We have more tech in the pipeline, more ways to make this process even more efficient."