Is purified air tomorrow’s filtered water? Origen Air’s co-founder is betting on it

At the heart of every Origen Air purification system is one of the most common houseplants on any college campus: pothos ivy.

Buried within its genome is a haiku — a botanical version of the tiny polar bear mark laser-engraved into Canadian diamonds to tell them apart from counterfeits. This trademark, seemingly ripped straight from “Gattaca,” protects Origen Air’s genetically modified plant — a creation it says can strip household chemicals out of the air we breathe.

In 1989, a NASA study erroneously claimed common houseplants could efficiently consume household toxins. But Origen Air co-founder and CEO Susan Blanchet says her company’s system actually does the trick — and has the scientific evidence to back it up. It also successfully landed two funding rounds to the tune of roughly $1.2 million dollars.

For $10,000 a pop, an Origen Air Pinnacle model can clean up to 8,000 cubic feet of air. Commercial tenants like BentallGreenOak, Hudson Pacific Properties, and JLL all use Origen Air systems to keep their air clean. It isn’t exactly cheap, but the company promises it has more models in the works to address dirty air — the next frontier of healthy environments, thanks to the pandemic and increasing awareness of air pollution.

“It’s kind of like water quality in the ’90s,” Blanchet explains. “We all thought water was just great. And then, all of a sudden, the testing results started to come out, and now everyone likes filtered water.”

Blanchet spoke to the Star from Victoria:

You were a lawyer with the B.C. attorney general for 13 years, and worked in real estate for three years. What made you decide to start a company like Origen Air?

I loved the practice of law in the beginning. I practised in the environmental space, on contaminated sites and riparian rights, and that’s what I love. My first degree was partly in environmental studies. And my dad was diagnosed with dementia at 51. He was a civil engineer designing wastewater treatment plants — notoriously bad air quality.

With my contaminated-sites background, I knew it had to have been some combination of factors, including air quality. But proving negligence with respect to toxins in the environment, as a litigator, is pretty much impossible. You can’t prove it unless there are very specific facts. It is so much easier to go the other way, and remove the toxins in the first place.

But I think that was the beginning of my realization that I’d always been an entrepreneur. Even as a small kid, I used to kidnap all of the neighbourhood dogs and cats and run a vet clinic in my garage. I started a soccer school when my boys were 10 to 14 years old. Then I started doing real estate on the side while practising law. It was just a natural progression, and I wanted to do something positive.

So how do Origen Air’s filters work?

What we’ve done is combine traditional air purification — that whirring plastic thing in your corner that has MERV or HEPA filters and that removes particulate matter — with our plants. The plants are our secret sauce. That’s what we do differently. I negotiated with the University of Washington for rights to the plants. In the beginning, we had co-exclusive rights — because universities like to give to more than one company. But we were able to renegotiate, and now we have exclusive global rights to these plants.

What’s special about them is that they have a liver enzyme encoded into their genome — the same as your liver or my liver. Our plants metabolize toxins. They proved the plant’s efficacy in laboratories at the University of Washington. They were removing 82 per cent of benzene present in the air. One hundred per cent of chloroform. They can also remove formaldehyde and acrolein — which is the off-gassing from carpets, glues, paints.

Volatile organic compounds are gasses, so they pass through traditional air purifiers. That’s what we’ve done with the multi-barrier approach. We take out the large particles first, the small gaseous particles second, and then we combine it with an air sensor to tell you how much we’re improving your air quality.

What did it take to convince the University of Washington to give these plants to you?

I think that’s where the lawyer skills came in. The university had published an article about the plants that we saw, and then I wrote to them and threw our hat in the ring. They asked for a full proposal, and we negotiated for a few months. And then we were successful alongside one other company. Lucky for us, the other company discontinued, and we renegotiated to get the global rights.

I think a lot of people assume that most pollutants are outdoors. What do you say to people who think the indoors are safer, or less polluting?

It’s funny that you say that. It’s completely known that volatile organic compounds cause disease over time, and yet you can still go buy products with them. I have three adult and teenage sons. One of them showed up with a body spray that’s got toxins in it that are not good for you to breathe. And humans bring in a lot of volatile organic components.

When you’re indoors, where’s the air coming from? First, it’s coming from outside the building. If there are cars going by, you’re breathing that exhaust. If it’s going through the HVAC system — as I said at the beginning, benzine passes right through an HVAC system. We did a study in Vancouver, which many people claim has the best air in the world. My pre-filters — my HEPA and MERV filters — were all pitch black in two months, in every machine. So we just can’t see it.

Was that during wildfire season?

No, it wasn’t. And this was in a LEED Platinum building with the best HVAC system you can get. You can see the air quality problem more in Southeast Asia, which is why we filed patents over there. People there are more aware of the problem, and it is definitely a problem in Canada as well.

In New Delhi, every year, they shut down the entire city to all trucks in November because the air pollution is so bad. When Indonesia does its burning, the smoke just flies over Singapore for a month at a time. I don’t know if you saw the recent pictures from Calgary, but it’s starting to happen here more and more frequently — and earlier every year.

Do you ever see yourself producing a product to handle wildfire smoke?

So the pre-filters will take out the particulate matter, which is smoke. They filter out that material. So, definitely, it is for wildfires, and then our plants will work on the gaseous compounds that pass through the volatile organic compounds as well. It’s definitely for both.

You were on “Dragon’s Den.” How do you think that contributed to Origen Air’s visibility?

The way it works on “Dragon’s Den” is you apply early in the year. We applied at the very beginning, when we’d raised maybe half of our round. By the time we filmed, we’d already raised 95 per cent. So I was stuck in a position to offer a very minimal amount of funding because that’s all we had left — I offered them one per cent. I pissed the Dragons off completely. I think it was the lowest amount ever offered to the Dragons in the history of “Dragon’s Den.” But the whole point was to get the product out there on TV.

Also, I’m a real champion of not only my investors — I’m not going to give the Dragons a better deal than the people who’ve invested in my company — but also of entrepreneurs. In doing these two funding rounds, I’ve learned there are a lot of sharks out there in the angel investment community. They want 20 per cent of your company for nothing. And as soon as most of these investors, like the Dragons, find out that I’m a lawyer, they just kind of quietly walk away, because they know they’re not going to out-negotiate me and get a bigger piece of the pie than they should.

I’m not a young entrepreneur. I’ve been around the block. I can stand up for myself, and make sure I’m getting the best deals. But a lot of people, just starting out, could get taken advantage of. So I wanted to flip the script a little bit and say — no, stick up for yourself. And if you don’t want the investment, then don’t take it.

What makes your units $10,000 each?

Well, first off, they’re expensive to build. And the plants are unique. And they’re very expensive to grow still. As we move into the future, I’m sure our costs will come down. We are working on a redesign right now with a third-party manufacturing company where we’ll be able to get some of our building costs down.

In 2019, I was given five plants. So for the last four years, I’ve been growing them as fast as I can, and I finally hit a critical mass where I’ll be able to grow them for a better amount per plant. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to wants one for their home. So it is coming. We have one coming — that design is complete, and we’re just doing our first prototype now. So in a few months, you’ll be able to get one for a really affordable price for your home.

Is it a potted plant in the corner?

Our first home product will actually be a desktop version. It will just sit on your desk. We’ve got some really cool ideas about how you can take care of the plant, and encourage people to have a pet plant. It’s gonna be fun. After that, we’ll design something sexier for your living room that’s actually beautiful. Why do our air purification devices have to be plastic and ugly? We can have the esthetic qualities of a living wall — with the air purification that’s necessary.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brennan Doherty is a former staff reporter for Star Calgary and the Star’s 24-hour radio room in Toronto. He is now a freelance contributor.


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