Interview with Jacques Touillon, Foobot founder
During the Cleantech Forum 2016, we had the pleasure to meet Jacques Touillon, the founder of Foobot, a sensor that measures air quality. Jacques agreed to answer our questions about Foobot and air quality.
Jacques Touillon, can you introduce yourself and your company?
Hello and good morning to all your readers.
I have an MBA education and I have worked for a long time in the environmental sector, in communications / marketing / behavioral change, in my own agency.
I’ve always liked to work on projects that make sense, such as combining modern life and respect for the environment. I would never have been able to work in advertising, because I want the projects I lead to be useful in our lives.
I created Foobot three years ago, but the idea of it is much older. My son, at the age of 2 years, was diagnosed with child asthma, a disease that I did not know before, which leaves parents feeling really helpless. So I became interested in air quality, but there was no solution at the time (12 years ago).
Around 2008, I turned to the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet in general, as a tool for behavioral change. I then had the opportunity to apply the concept of IoT to air quality, with the challenge of combining measurement sensors and data processing.
The first year of Foobot, we focused on the concept, research and prototyping of sensors to produce the Minimal Viable Product (MVP). We also launched a crowdfunding campaign to test the market by selling our prototype to beta testers in 24 countries.
The second year, we did a lot of tests and improved the product through user feedback. After two years, the product was fully developed and ready to be placed on the market. Foobot has existed as a finished product for a year.
How is it going with Foobot being placed on the market ?
Unlike other connected objects, Foobot is not a substitute for an existing non-connected product: it is a completely new concept. It is therefore necessary to accustom the public and educate. So there is a good level of evangelization and explanation, although we still have geeks and early adopters.
The first step is to reveal air quality measurements, to make visible this invisible enemy that is air pollution. But knowing that there’s a problem is not enough to solve it. Secondly, it is necessary to move from monitoring to action, and take control of ventilation, filtration and purification systems.
So what exactly is Foobot?
Foobot is a connected device that measures air quality. It has a sensor able to measure the two main sources of indoor pollution. First, chemical pollution: volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde (declared a carcinogen by the World Health Organization) being very well-known.
Foobot can also detect hazardous gas (as declared by WHO), notwithstanding that there are of course many more polluting gases.
Second, physical pollution: detection of fine particles. For indoor air quality, the focus is on PM2.5 particles, which are less than 2.5 microns in diameter. These are particles that we inhale and that directly impact our respiratory system. The finest of them pass into our bloodstream. These are often found indoors.
Foobot also measures temperature and humidity, as these are worsening or improving pollution factors. If it’s too hot, gaseous pollutants are harmful; if the air is moist, mold can grow; if it is too dry, our mucous membranes are irritated, for example.
Foobot is connected via WiFi and provides continuous measurement, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are two ways to access the data collected: First via LEDs on the device, that change color depending on the quality of the air: 3 shades of blue for healthy air, and 3 shades of orange for polluted air.
Then, the smartphone app (iOS and Android) will retrieve the results, but also allows the user to consult the measures, receive alerts, notifications, recommendations, and so on.
Ultimately, we want to allow users to control their ventilation, filtration and purification automatically from the app, depending on the air quality measures.
Can you tell us more about this automation?
So far, we have developed three main projects.
First, we have a Swedish partner, Blueair air purifiers, which seeks to digitize its business. Through licensing, they have their own Foobot under their name, and we are working to integrate our sensors directly into the purifiers in order to have a single device.
Then we have another larger project on the US market. The goal is to integrate three products: Foobot, a connected thermostat (Lux) and a purifier, thereby purifying the air directly into the air ducts. A professional is required for the installation, so we’re targeting the construction or retrofit market.
Foobot monitors the air quality, controls the thermostat and triggers the ventilation and purification systems according to the level of pollution. We’d have first on demand, completely automated air handling system.
We also have another project available to the general public: Foobot has just been labeled IFTTT (If This Then That). The idea is to make objects interact easily with each other, based on rules defined by the user.
For example, if it is dark, the lighting can come on automatically. With Foobot, we can use rules like: “if the humidity is below 35%, light the humidifier.” Or “if the overall pollution level exceeds the threshold recommended by WHO, switch on the air purifier.”
Unconnected devices such as a conventional fan can be controlled by Foobot if plugged to a simple WiFi connector (found in all electronic and appliance stores). The service is free and extremely simple for users.
Foobot can be compared with a Dolby System because Foobot is both a product and software.
The product is intended to both the consumer market and professionals?
For Footbot to emerge as a market expert and expand, consumers are clearly the first target. But our real project is in the BtoB and BtoBtoC markets. Another project under development, for example, is to allow Foobot to control connected thermostats, like Nest. We’d like Foobot to be the next “air quality thermostat”.
When designing an innovative product like Foobot, what has been your biggest challenge?
The hardest challenge, and what remains difficult, is to make people accept the technological breakthrough and move from meteorological monitoring to monitoring trends.
Let me explain: if you have a scale at home, you know well that the weight given to you every morning is not completely accurate: it can vary from one model of weighing scale to another. However, you also know that to continuing to weigh on the same scale provides valuable information by monitoring the trend of your weight.
This is exactly the same for Foobot. Experts met early in the project often called me wacky, or rogue, saying that if the measurement is not totally accurate, we should not be pretending to provide it. Laboratory devices to measure air quality are too expensive for the general public, so this condemns ordinary people to ignorance, because of the lack of suitable technology.
I often say that the fact that the sensor is not as accurate as professional equipment is not a problem. The repeatability of the measurement is what’s important. This is exactly the same for the quantified self and all the activity trackers: a few years ago, all we did was criticize the 20 to 25% margin of error, now these devices are used in preventive medicine in the United States.
It is important to know the limits of the device to make a good use of it. We know, for example, that the particle sensor measures with a margin of error of 12%, against 5% for professional equipment worth 10 times more.
Any breakthrough is always criticized, but our technology can also provide valuable information on people’s environment. For example, if you go to the doctor for respiratory problems, it can be extremely useful to have information on the air quality at home before, during and after the occurrence of a crisis.
We are looking into the causes and not just the consequences. this is particularly true as the air quality has been neglected in buildings: there is a lot of interest in energy efficiency in buildings without considering indoor air quality, in Europe anyway. It is urgent to focus on air quality as a vector of health.
You live in the United States: what are the major differences between Europe and the United States regarding air quality? Is Foobot perceived differently ?
It’s a very interesting question.
The level of general knowledge is much higher in Europe but, and this is very surprising, Europeans buy fewer air quality related products.
It can be explained quite simply: the American society has generally accepted and adopted data services and appreciates these services. It is a data-driven society and Americans encourage innovation, whereas Europeans are more conservative.
Similarly, Europeans don’t think that public health in general should be supported by everyone. For them, and for French people in particular, it is the government’s job to take care of people’s health.
However, studies show that pollution of indoor and outdoor air costs 101 billion euros each year! Imagine how many Foobot we could put in homes with that much money! [laughs].
What about the reality of air quality? Is it different?
In the United States, most heating systems are based on forced air, so there is more fine particles than with a central heating system in which the heat is not in direct contact with the air.
The phenomenon of indoor air pollution is almost the same all over the world. Unfortunately, even in China, indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, by confining spaces and mismanagement of the renewal of air.
The two markets have the same growth potential for us, but Foobot has a more immediate impact in North America because we can treat the air directly into the ventilation system. In Europe, you have to bring more equipment, a purifier for example, although it is easier to make improvements during a renovation.
Again, European firms are very strong in the field of energy recovery and sophisticated ventilation systems, for example, far more than the US. But Europeans are just beginning to take an interest in air quality.
Foobot is an extremely interesting idea, but once we buy it, how useful is it really?
In the end, what good is a thermostat once you use it?
There are two cases: if you use Foobot to control the quality of indoor air, you use it to check that all is well.
Trivia: once at home, Foobot measured poorer air. So I looked for the cause, and I found it: road works at street level increased the rate of fine particles and thus created a pollution background.
Second case, if you use the software to use Foobot as a thermostat: it acts as an intelligent control center and it never ceases to be useful!
Foobot is part of a larger family of greentech products. How will this family of products change our lives?
In Europe, I’m not sure, but in the US, Australia or the UK, greentech is growing and the boundaries are constantly pushed back.
For example, it is the private sector that is setting standards of welfare and health in the building in the United States. Manufacturers are themselves trying to define sustainability standards for the development, construction and welfare in buildings.
They’re also starting to imagine commercial leases that use indoor air quality as a criteria.
In Europe, such initiatives exist, but not on the side of air quality: RT2012, or before it BBC (Low Consumption Building) are biased towards energy efficiency but do not take into account indoor air quality.
What are the major challenges for air quality in the coming years?
I think we overall need to show more. At this time, there are not enough studies or surveys available.
Except for people who are already suffering from it (from respiratory illness, for example), air quality has a long-term impact or indeed a very long-term: 10, 20 or 30 years. So it’s easy to say that it is not important, since there are no immediate consequences.
It is not possible to know the impact of the air quality on the premature deaths. We must quantify the impact of pollution on health. There are already WHO statistics on the loss of life expectancy: about 12 to 18 months lost in Europe.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, but still not banned in Europe. The European Union only makes recommendations without taking concrete actions.
For example, in 2012 a French law appeard, applicable in 2015, which required air quality to be measured every 7 years in public buildings, but there are generally no funds to fix the problems if they are detected. Result: the decree was cancelled and replaced by the provision of leaflets providing advice on air quality.
It is a paradox that does not exist in the United States since the certifications are done privately. Companies pay insurance and mutual health based on risk, and they have a vested interest in measuring the risk to pay less insurance.
In this regard, have you seen a change in attitudes or habits in recent years?
Yes. Three years ago, when I met experts or engineers, they told me that I was wacky. Today, they admit that there is an interest, but without recommending it. The general public approach helps us change minds.
As for the general public, there are more spontaneous sales in the US, of course, but also in Northern Europe, the Netherlands and the UK.
Any final words?
It is commendable to want to make visible an invisible enemy, but the real value is for Foobot to be able to control air quality systems. After SaaS (Software as a Service) and MaaS (Marketing as a Service), think the GAaaS: Good Air as a Service.
Thank you very much to Jacques Touillon CEO of Foobot, for granting us this interview at the Cleantech Forum. If readers want to try out Foobot, they can purchase it via Amazon.