Harder to breathe: finding solutions to air pollution - Christopher J Dobbing
Christopher Dobbing (Pembroke 2008) explains how his entrepreneurial journey started at Cambridge.
I am really proud of having a business that can help get people outside and enjoying themselves without having to worry about their health.
A lot of alumni will be familiar with China’s soaring levels of pollution, grabbing headlines around the world. Many entrepreneurs like myself are trying to find ways of fixing the problem. After seeing how badly children are affected, I developed a company manufacturing fashion-focused military grade pollution masks with a British twist.
We use a technology developed by the British military for chemical nuclear and biological warfare protection. That might sound scary, but you need something sophisticated to deal with pollution that can be 10 or 20 times over World Health Organisation (WHO) standards.
According to WHO data, more than seven million people per year die from air pollution. That’s more than AIDS and malaria combined, or someone every four seconds. It’s not just a developing country problem either – in December 2015, Italy shut down the centre of Rome after suffering from a shroud of air pollution. Last year, London’s Oxford Street exceeded its entire annual pollution allowance for nitrous oxides within one week during January 2016.
I read SPS at Pembroke (2008-11) and have lived in Beijing since 2012. My wife and I had our first child in October 2016. It’s tough here living with children, but once you get the air purifiers set up at home and wear masks outdoors, you can start to enjoy all the great things the city has to offer.
A journey that started in Cambridge
My entrepreneurial journey started out at Cambridge, where Andrey Pronin (Fitzwilliam 2008) and I founded Oxbridge Tours as an answer to rising tuition fees. Students were paid above market wages to give guided 'behind the walls' perspectives to tourists. I was lucky enough to receive mentorship and encouragement from William Pitt Fellow, Richard Parmee (Pembroke 1970), who founded the Parmee Prize – intended to catalyse businesses being developed in the College. We also received a letter of support from the Vice-Chancellor and hosted tours for then MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert and the Cardinal of New York, as well as many others.
After graduation, I moved to China and worked as an education consultant. Many of the students I was working with complained of scratchy throats and were carrying inhalers. I was really shocked, as I don’t believe any child should think it’s normal to spend all day coughing. Some kids even colour the sky in grey when they paint pictures in school, which unsettled me greatly. I wanted to help with a certified mask that can actually protect them but that also looks fun and friendly so they are happy to wear them when mum and dad aren’t looking.
Cambridge Mask Co was accepted to Y Combinator’s Fellowship programme for Summer 2016, and has been getting the same support that has helped Airbnb, Dropbox and Stripe to global dominance. In August 2016 we closed an investment round with Cambridge Angels which has given us the resources to really push growth. We are now attracting interest from VCs and major global tech companies.
Richard Lucas (1985) a fellow Pembroke alumnus and former judge on the Parmee Prize is an investor in our latest financing round. He has been incredibly supportive and said: “I was really impressed with the business fundamentals. More people are moving into cities, more people are using cars and more countries are using coal as their main power source. None of those trends are set to change any time soon, so air pollution is here to stay.”
With a price tag of £22, the masks are towards the top end of the market in China. However, they last for an average of around 200 hours so if you work it out per hour of use, they’re actually quite competitive with other products but we find that it can be hard to communicate that to customers.
Although the masks have been a big hit since the company launched in January 2015. I am really proud of having a business that can help get people outside and enjoying themselves without having to worry about their health or the way they look.
Christopher has a BA in Social and Political Sciences and attended Pembroke College.
Find out more about www.cambridgemask.com
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This article has been written by Christopher J Dobbing and the opinions expressed are those of the author.