And breathe … how a Finnish startup is tackling air pollution

Finnish clean-air provider Naava partnered with Invesdor and Nordea in a crowdfunding push in 2018. Now, with air pollution on the rise, it’s plotting its next move.
Banner photo: A young girl is given oxygen after levels of pollution forced Beijing authorities to issue a red alert.
Photo: KevinFrayer/gettyimages

Aki Soudunsaari had a problem. A €2 million problem to be precise.

He’d set that target as a personal landmark in his crowdfunding round for his revolutionary air-filter concept Naava, aimed at dramatically improving the air we breathe while indoors. Yet, despite raising more than €500,000 through the final day of the round, the push was still some €100,000 short of the magic number.

So, instead of accepting defeat and watching the cash drip in bit by bit on the crowdfunding Invesdor-platform with his finger poised over the refresh button, he took, as he says, action.

“We had an investor who’d already decided after long consideration to pass on us at an earlier stage in the round so I decided to give him a call with 35 minutes to go before the midnight deadline,” says Soudunsaari. “He was in Miami having a late lunch at the time, but after I told him I really wanted to hit the €2mn mark, he said ‘okay, let’s do it.’”

The investor, also a Finn, got in touch with his bank (Nordea as it happens), and at 11.57pm, with the clock ticking, the money went through and took Naava through Soudunsaari’s self-imposed barrier.

I decided to give him a call with 35 minutes to go before the midnight deadline

Choosing the best
Soudunsaari was well-versed in crowdfunding already when he began the conversation with Nordea a year ago. Having already been on a crowdfunding push with a Swedish crowdfunder, he knew what he wanted but the perfectionist in him set Naava on a path that would ultimately lead to the Invesdor platform in December 2018.

“We wanted to work with the best and Invesdor has a big reach in the Nordics,” he says. “They’d already demonstrated they had a great track record, they happened to be Finnish and when we approached them, they fit all our criteria.”

The Naava chief also took heart from its relationship with Nordea and, with Nordea forming a fruitful partnership with Invesdor, it made the decision a no-brainer.

“When you are dealing with not so dynamic or traditional investors, then that extra stamp of collaboration from a bank can only be a good thing,” he says. “You’re going for growth, you’ve got to explain your story well when you go public and that branding on your bidding round can only help.”

If all this makes Soudunsaari sound like some high-end salesman, you’d be somewhat wide of the mark. He may indeed have the sort of persuasive tongue that even an Irish man might look upon with a touch of envy, but it would be crude to label him as an upmarket version of a second-hand car dealer.

This is a man after all enrolled to do a PhD in entrepreneurship in his native Finland, a behavioural scientist to boot, and the originator and creator of the whole Naava concept, of which more later.

But perhaps nothing illustrates his dynamism and ethic more than the fact that he chased that target of €2mn in that half hour before the deadline, even though the minimum target of €1mn had already been achieved before Naava entered the final day of its crowdfunding round.

To put it another way, he’d already succeeded. But for him, it wasn’t enough. Soudunsaari was neither going to accept quite good nor second best on his CV. He wanted to succeed better and was going to do everything in his power to do so.

With that kind of drive, it is little wonder then that the Nordea-sponsored round recorded a 204% success rate on the official target when it completed in December 2018. And that whole ethos of going for gold has pretty much underpinned the business since its conception in 2011.

Enjoy your flight: The Naava 'Green Wall' at Helsinki Airport should put flyers in the mood for the long haul. Photo: Naava

The cleanest air in the world

When you begin to look at the Naava concept in detail, it all begins to make a little more sense. This is no ordinary business after all. In fact, you might have argued a decade ago that it was frankly unworkable. But Soudunsaari had a vision and he was unwavering. A glance at his upbringing explains all.

“I spent my first 18 years growing up in Lapland which, according to the World Health Organisation, has the cleanest air in the world,” he says in a Skype interview. “Everyone has access to nature there surrounded by clear lakes, rivers and mountains.

“It was a luxury that I did not appreciate at the time.”

It was, he says, what he perceived to be the normal kind of environment enjoyed by everyone throughout the globe, so it was a rude awakening for the 35-year old when he moved to urban living as a student and then as a teacher and succumbed all too quickly to illness after hours and hours spent indoors at work and home.

“We spend something like 22-23 hours indoors and it’s not natural,” he says. “I was in a new-build school 10 years ago and after a few months of spending half my day in classrooms, I began to develop sinus problems which then evolved into cognitive issues and actual problems with remembering things.”

Soudunsaari made it his mission to spend more time outdoors and, like a snap of the fingers, the symptoms started to disappear. It was from there that the concept for Naava was born in 2011.

“At Naava, we believe everyone has the right to breathe air as nature intended but the office environment means that we are taking in air thousands of times through the day in a way that nature never intended,” he says. “It restricts our minds, our bodies and holds back our brilliance. A US Environmental Protection Agency report showed indoor air is 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air.

“There are three things that we need to survive – food, water and air,” he says, warming to his subject. “We can survive without food for two weeks, and without water for four days, but without air, we can live only a few minutes.

“If we see the water in our glass is dirty, we can choose not to drink it, but we cannot see the air we breathe, so we breathe it in automatically no matter what the quality.”

Growing pains? Naava founder Aki Soudunsaari has exciting plans for the clean-air provider, now it has gone through a successful crowdfunding push with Invesdor & Nordea. Photo: Naava

Eyeing the exit?
If you’ve been reading our crowdfunding series, you’ll already know that an exit strategy is essential for attracting angel investors and venture capitalists. In this respect, Naava is no different.

With a listing on the horizon, Naava’s mission statement highlights the potential for some of the big global tech companies like Philips or Samsung or the high-tec furniture solution providers such as Steelcase, Hermann Miller or IKEA to take a punt on the clean-air provider.

“We’re small and cannot have a huge impact globally, but we hope one day to have a lot of different solutions and maybe be in every school or kindergarden,” says Soudunsaari, who is married with a two-year old boy. “We’ve made a mess environmentally but if you think of all the gifts nature provides, we’re hopefully going in the right direction now and I think we can reconnect humanity with nature.”

Whether that happens inside the current Naava framework or as part of a bigger operation remains to be seen. As ever, time will tell.

Now that Soudunsaari had effectively self-remedied his own illnesses, he set his mind to how he could bring this to the world. It was then that he remembered the so-called beard and horsechair lichen that grows only in his native Lapland, and the most northern parts of Norway and Finland.

The beard and horsechair lichen thrives only in areas of outstanding air quality and it is this that Naava has harnessed in its green furniture concept which, Soudunsaari says, he hopes to make available throughout the world by 2020.

If that sounds like pie in the sky, then a glance at Naava’s development tells a different story. The Naava ‘green wall’ has already been installed in more than 2,000 locations across the Nordics, the US and most recently South Korea, sales topped out at €3.6mn in 2018 for a 100% increase on the previous year and growth is projected at 70%/year.

It has a 98% retention rate among its clients, counts more than 450 A-class companies as customers and has established key distribution relationships with the likes of Office Blueprint and Technion in the UK and US respectively.

The Inc 5000 Europe meanwhile ranked it #689 in its ‘Europe Fastest Growing Companies’ listings for 2018 and media coverage has been extensive, global and, in an era where sustainability and ESG concerns are at the forefront of the conversation (and one we at Nordea are particularly keen to push), constant.

The holy grail

There are even plans for an IPO by the end of 2021, according to the business plan.

“To be frank, the crowdfunding process is like doing a mini IPO,” says the Naava CEO & founder. “You do the roadshows just like you would on an IPO and now we’re building the next stage of the business with partnerships in north America and other exciting stuff in the pipeline.”

And it is that venture in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, that provides the biggest clue to where Naava might go next.

“We’ve been in South Korea now for a year building our distribution and channel partners and it’s been a successful testing ground,” he says. “The main core of our research and development now is focused on how to meet the demands and preferences of our Asian customers.”

In essence, we’re looking at importing air from Finland to China

With so much attention focused on pollution, it is no surprise then to learn that the Finnish disruptor has its sights firmly set on China. Some 4.5 billion people are subject to air pollution at levels more than double WHO safety guidelines and a significant number of them live in the world’s second biggest economy.

“The holy grail are the big mega cities in Asia and China in particular,” he says. “In essence, we’re looking at importing air from Finland to China.”

Soudunsaari readily admits that Naava has also been able to ride a Nordic bandwagon that has put Scandinavian brands firmly at the quality end of the product spectrum in China, where problems with local brands have been considerable and, in some very unfortunate cases, even fatal.

”In the Nordics, the Naava products sort of fall into the ‘good-to-have’ category but this is not the case in a lot of Chinese cities where it’s a ‘must-have’,” he says. “Our product is manufactured in Finland and we can utilise that. They are very interested in what Naava can do.”

Naava targets cities with populations of at least one million and with the cost of solving the world’s air pollution issues almost impossible to calculate, the patented Naava technology looks well set up to be at the forefront of the clean-up.

Soudansaari envisages a time when offices, homes and even schools around the world have a ‘green wall’ in their office churning out air that benefits everyone but has a prophetic warning that if we are to win the sustainability argument, humanity has to get its act together sooner rather than later.

“I’m passionate about nature and respecting nature,” he says. “What we need to do is find the way for biology and technology to work in harmony.”

Breathless: China's problems with air pollution are well documented and Naava's 'green wall' solution could help its cities make the issue more manageable. Photo: KevinFrayer/gettyimages

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