URBAN-X Cohort 07 company, Metalmark, is designing technology inspired by nature to improve air quality. Sissi Liu, co-founder of Metalmark, began her career in investment banking and tech. She spent the last 20 years working on technology-enabled sustainability. “My team and I are always thinking about the future and the next generation,” Sissi says. “Having kids has helped to reinforce our commitment.”

Sissi Liu is CEO and co-founder of Metalmark Innovations.

Globally, air pollution causes seven million premature deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization. It has been associated with cancer, heart attacks, asthma and other chronic diseases, as well as poor worker productivity and $5 trillion of societal costs every year.

How do we clear the air for future generations? Metalmark has a plan. Sissi’s team, whom she met at Harvard, create nano-materials inspired by butterflies. Porous nano- and micro-structures make the wings of butterflies including those of the Metalmark family lightweight, water-repelling, and colorful. The team realized that they could make similar porous structures in the lab and give them an additional function the ability to break down harmful pollutants. Metalmark’s unique 3D nano-structured material is unlike anything else on the market. Rather than relying on filters to clean the air, in which case the pollutants are trapped but not destroyed, their solution completely breaks them down.

A visual interpretation of a 50 nanometer piece of a patented Metalmark material.

Metalmark cites support of the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Grant and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Catalyst Award as critical for the success in bringing their technology from a research lab to industry relevance. These grants have given the new company the resources to set up an independent lab space, build the equipment they need to scale-up the production of their materials and test their effectiveness in breaking down harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The company has established partnerships to develop the technology further, including prototyping and focused research and development.

Metalmark is currently targeting indoor air quality. People spend 90% of their time indoors and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the concentrations of indoor air pollution are often up to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations. Indoor air is plagued by a variety of toxic VOCs, coming from paints, cleaning products, upholstery, stoves, etc. Viruses, bacteria, dust, and particulates are other common contaminants. After reviewing 178 research articles, MIT Sloan assistant professorJackson Lu found that air pollution is linked to increased mental disorders, substance abuse, absenteeism, decreased work productivity, and criminal behavior. New discoveries have also linked air pollution to diabetes, dementia, and poor academic performance. “At Metalmark, we are turning toxic fumes into breathable air by decomposing chemicals and odors, with the potential for removing fine particles and viruses and bacteria indoors,” Sissi says. “To live sustainably, we have to deal with air-related challenges.” Metalmark aims to use their materials in vehicles, airplanes, buildings, and homes for high-efficiency pollution control and air purification.

Sissi Liu, CEO, and Dr. Elijah Shirman, VP of technology, are both founding members of Metalmark Innovations.

It’s clear that cleaning the air is something that will require the public and private sector to work together so everyone can breathe easier — indoors and out. The U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) estimated that the Clean Air Act had a monetized health benefit valued at $2.0 trillion in 2020. Private companies aim to make a similar impact to indoor air quality. The air purifier market is expected to grow to $33.4 billion by 2024 with an 8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), according to the latest market research report by Technavio, proving that there is both a market need and business opportunity for startups who are creating solutions to fight indoor air pollution.

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