Bringing New Pollution Protection Facewear to Market: Dan Bowden, CEO, O2O2

Dan Bowden is the CEO of O2O2, one of the newest urban tech companies to join SOSV’s portfolio of startups. Working from a well-appointed converted warehouse space in Brooklyn, NY, Bowden spent 20 weeks in the Urban-X program further developing O2O2 and its core product: pollution protection facewear using an advanced air filtration technology and patented design.

Recently, Bowden sat down with me to discuss the incubator program and the future for O2O2. In a word? Partnerships. “We can find partnerships all over,” Bowden says. “It’s about finding the right kind of partnerships. We were out in Portland, Oregon last week. There was really great interest from those guys and I think we have the ability to use their strengths to leverage our strengths. And we’re now in discussions with investors to take advantage of those partnerships.”

But let’s first take a step back and look at the origin of O2O2 and the difficult truths regarding our world’s air pollution. According to the WHO, airborn pollution claims 7 million lives annually. In places like Beijing, the WSJ reports it is unsafe to exercise outdoors two out of three days. In fact, it was in China where the initial concept for O2O2 facewear was conceived.

It All Began in China…

“Our co-founder Ilya [Vensky] was creating brands and opening up markets in China quite a few years ago,” Bowden explains, “and his wife got quite sick when she was there because of the air pollution. As a result, she had to move back to New Zealand. So that was very personal and that’s always stuck with him. At the same point, our other cofounder [Jerry Mauger] was working in polluted environments, so he got it from a perspective of not just the environmental point of view but also from user’s perspective: how bad is it to actually wear facemasks. He understood that people were wearing these masks all day and it wasn’t comfortable. He realized he couldn’t have any facial hair and wear a mask. This was an old-fashioned solution and he realized there had to be a better way. And that lead him to go through that process of working and coming up with a new technical solution which became the basis for our patents.”

The functionality of this facewear is what’s most interesting: not just that it protects the user from air pollution but also how it does this. That’s the innovative, patented technology behind O2O2. “It’s like a clean air facility,” Bowden says, and likens the process to that of an electronics manufacturing facility. “They’re constantly flushing the space with clean air, and that’s what we’re doing too. We’re pulling air through a filtration medium that is cleaning the air. That air is then being fired in front of the face creating turbulent air in front of the face behind a clear shield. What that is then doing, because of that turbulent air, is creating air pressure and an air pressure differential between the face and the outside world.”

This constant air pressure differential allows the user to wear the facewear with just two points of contact on the nose and around the ears. “We have no seal around the face,” Bowden says. “It’s just constantly flushing clean air.”

Of course, it took a great deal of work to get to the engineering prototype O2O2 has today. What originally started on the computer, modeling different air flows, working with a plastic shield in the lab, eventually came to result in what Bowden calls “cheap, nasty prototyping that lead to a tupperware container full of prototypes with first iterations made with off-the-shelf fans and the same plastics you’d see in a Coke bottle.”

The 12-Hour Design Cycle

While Bowden was in New York City, his team members worked from New Zealand and England, which just serendipitously happened to enable what he calls a 12-hour design cycle. “Every 12 hours a new prototype would come off the line,” he says. “We had the team working nine to nine in Auckland, and at 9pm there would be a handover process to our team in London who would then work from nine to nine over there and then hand it over again. We were able to consistently do different iterations on sizes, shapes, and how it all sort of fit together. That’s what lead us to where we are today with an engineering prototype. We’ve pushed all the boundaries and technology and now we can bring it back into a consumer-facing prototype… something that’s a bit more sexy so that within two seconds people can say, ‘Yes, I want to wear that.’”

Dan Bowden and Ilya Vensky initially met at University and many years later, while Bowden was working in Europe, Vensky reached out with this concept and technology. He had the idea to somehow bring it to market. “My automatic reaction was that we were an incomplete team,” Bowden recalls. But soon enough Jerry Mauger came on board and together, with their unique skills, this three-person team set out to develop this product. “And that’s where we’re quite lucky,” Bowden says. “We’ve got three very different personalities.”

Indeed, O2O2’s team is a unique combination of engineering, technology, and business. “I originally came from a bit of finance,” Bowden says. “I ran some businesses as diverse as petrol stations in Spain to care homes in Germany, created an investment management business but a hands-on investment management business within a European insurer or investment management company and grew that to about $1.5 billion of asset management.”

The Hospital Pass

Now Bowden’s faced with the task of bringing this product to market: manufacturing, distribution, marketing… and he’s excited. “I’ve never come to work for a paycheck,” Bowden says. “I’ve done it because something has interested me, something has gotten me excited, something has made me think, ‘Fuck, how do I do that?’ And I love that. I love waking up in the morning and thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into? How am I going to change this and make this work?’ My whole career has always been starting off with something that no one else knew what to do with. They have a term in New Zealand and over in England, and it comes from rugby: When you’re playing rugby, and someone passes you the ball, and you know you’re going to get hit, and you’re going to get hit hard, and you have to catch the ball anyway, that’s called a ‘hospital pass’. You have to catch the ball and try and make something of it. I was the designated person to receive the hospital pass in all occasions. Sometimes you get hit and you just pick yourself off the ground. Other times you do a little side step and a little bit of a shimmy and you do something no one ever expected.”

Next week Bowden leaves New York City for China to meet with contract manufacturers to begin building a consumer facewear product. At the same time, he is discussing partnerships with global fitness brands to bring the product quickly and directly to market. “We’re looking at a couple of routes with the sports and athleticism side of things,” Bowden says. “One is the high-end athlete. Talking about that little edge they can get with our product. For instance, the Swedish Olympic team installed air filters in their apartments both in Sweden and over in Rio as part of their ambition to give themselves a little bit of edge. Rashad Jennings? He sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber. For high-end athletes, it’s all about rest and recovery, you know, getting pure oxygen back into the blood.”

Another route to market for this product is designed to appeal to consumers working in the streets. “People who work in the streets, running in the streets,” Bowden says. “Let’s take back the streets, and enjoy our cities again.”

If You Can Heal The Symptoms, But Not Affect The Cause…

Therein lies a bit of a paradigm perhaps. By offering a product like this, something that alleviates the symptoms of air pollution without effecting any real change in the environment or otherwise attempting to solve the root problem of air pollution… can we say it is a good thing?

“Are we creating a false sense of security?” Bowden asks. “Does this mean that people can obviate themselves from the extreme need to make a change? That is a threat, yes. But from a company point of view, we actually want to do away with the need for our product on the street. That’s just who we are. We want to get rid of it. We don’t want people to be existing in pollution. Also, we see the ability for us to create change. And what we’re able to do, one of the very first things we looked at, was the ability to add pollution sensors to our product that would enable you, with a powered device, to collect real time data on pollution where it happens.”

With accurate, real-time data, O2O2 users can then contribute to the global debate on air pollution with hard facts. And Bowden believes that their users will want to do that. He continues, saying matter-of-factly, “No one wants to wear facewear. They have to wear facewear. There’s always going to be air pollutants, it’s not just on the streets, it’s going to be the car painter who’s just across the road from us, the guy pulling down asbestos, it’s the war fighter who is running through a warfield with uranium deposits, people working in a healthcare scenario… we’ve got 100 different verticals, all sorts of markets to expand into. So if I can do some good in the world, I’m bloody happy to do so.”

Working with SOSV in NYC allowed Bowden and his team at O2O2 to find the help they needed in creating something new and innovative. With a little design help, an entry into NYC capital markets, and a dedicated work space, the SOSV experience provided what Bowden calls “a collision of creativity, capital, and engineering.”

Current O2O2 partnerships include The Auckland University of Technology and a nano-filtration company called Revolution Fibres. If you’re interested in discussing a partnership with Dan Bowden or would like to learn more about O2O2 and their facewear product, visit O2O2.co


Originally published at sosv.com on June 20, 2017.