Michigan startup maps pollution disparities for healthier communities

Darren Riley
Rapids Air Quality founder Darren Riley. Credit: Rapids Air Quality / Courtesy

A Michigan startup founder whose family experienced environmentally linked health issues is using his understanding of these problems to influence his work.

Darren Riley’s Grand Rapids-based startup, Rapids Air Quality, develops tech solutions that monitor cities’ air quality to help city leaders and employees make informed decisions about how to address pollution.

“Before we can bring solutions to bear, we want to first monitor and appropriately measure what impact the solutions will have,” Riley said. “We’re really talking about this at the neighborhood level.”

The startup was recently selected to participate in the inaugural cohort of the mHUB Accelerated Incubation program in Chicago. It’s a six-month, hands-on program for hardtech product development and commercialization.

Riley’s company especially aims to make a difference in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to have higher instances of air pollution and pollution-related lung ailments.

“The big problem we’re trying to solve is that cities lack the infrastructure to make proper decisions about air quality,” Riley said. “Our goal is to build a service company that impacts lives.”

How it started

The Rapids Air Quality team had a discussion with health authorities in Grand Rapids who mentioned a pattern of more asthma or lung illnesses emerging from certain neighborhoods on certain days. Their assumption was that pollution was disproportionately affecting low-income communities and communities of color.

Rapids Air Quality installed some sensors around Grand Rapids during an initial pilot program and proved there were differences in air quality among neighborhoods, Riley said.

Many cities that install environmental sensors only do so on a limited scale and often only in their downtown areas due to budgetary concerns. But hardware and sensor tech advances are making more robust networks possible at a more reasonable price. “With the cost of sensors going down, we want to completely map a city and help bring more transparency to those inequalities and help bring solutions to the table,” Riley said.

The tech

Rapids Air Quality monitors are installed on existing infrastructure, such as light poles.
Rapids Air Quality monitors are installed on existing infrastructure, such as light poles. Credit: Rapids Air Quality / Courtesy

The sensors are installed on infrastructure that already exists within a city — usually light poles. The business assesses each city and where the sensors would make the most sense. This also means working with people in each community to inform them of the project, what the data is used for, and how they can leverage it to make their community more livable. Grassroots education initiatives also help to build trust and project acceptance.

“If you come to my community and slap sensors on the poles, I would be suspicious,” Riley said. “It’s not until you talk to me as a neighbor, as a person, and inform me and work with me and ask what my needs are do I develop a rapport and trust.”

The sensors ingest environmental data such as temperature, humidity, particulate matter, nitrous oxide levels, and ozone levels. The system maps the data and allows the city to pinpoint areas of concern. Planners can use the information for a variety of pollution mitigation and air quality improvement changes. This could mean evaluating whether to allow more industry in a certain area, traffic re-routing, sending air quality alerts to residents, or developing more green space.

Plus, the air monitoring doesn’t only produce negative results.

“It can even be a positive — if there is a good air quality day why not use that buzz to activate a space? Like saying, ‘Come down to the park enjoy the good air today,’” Riley said. “There are little opportunities like that to really activate and engage a city in these conversations.”

Life influences work

Riley says his desire to do this kind of work stems from watching family and other community members struggle with lung issues that appear linked to living and working in neighborhoods with higher levels of air pollution.

“A lot of my motivation comes from my upbringing,” Riley said. “My father was incarcerated when I was five and he struggled with lung health and struggled to lock down a job because he was restricted to manual labor after he got out of the prison system. That really resonated with me.

“I’ve been motivated from a ground-zero perspective to the little things you can do to move the needle and improve somebody’s health and well-being and how that can change the face of a family and a neighborhood and a community.”

This backs his belief that it is important to support diverse entrepreneurs who solve problems through their own lens and lived experiences, which results in more diverse solutions.

The challenges

Like most startups, the Rapids Air Quality team has noticed pressure on entrepreneurs to go fast and keep testing. Riley tries to strike a balance between pace and adding value.

“There is a value to going slow, especially when trying to impact communities with a ground-up approach,” he said.

Riley also noted the challenge of being so focused on product and service impact that he might not think of some other startup launch intricacies, such as marketing the business. The mentorship and support that mHUB provides through the hardtech accelerator already is helping to get a handle on those details, Riley said.

What’s next

Rapids Air Quality is moving into the next phase of the Grand Rapids pilot and will install more sensors throughout the city to create an even more comprehensive mapping system. After fulling mapping Grand Rapids later this year, Riley aims to expand pilot projects to other core Midwestern cities that have air quality disparities —  such as Detroit and Chicago — then move across the nation.

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