By Eric Peterson | Oct 12, 2021
Air quality sensors
Living near the Point of the Mountain -- the range that separates Salt Lake City and Provo -- can come with air quality issues. Wind whistling through a gap in the mountains tends to scatter dust from a large gravel pit around Dybwad's neighborhood in Draper.
"The wind speeds up as it goes through that gap," he says. "It picks up dust from this gravel pit and spreads it north and south over the towns nearby. Living up on the hill, I would see the dust blowing over Bluffdale every day, and I just wondered how much dust that was."
To answer the question, Dybwad leveraged his background in electronics and programming to develop a better air quality sensor and launch PurpleAir. "I've had to use all the skills I've collected over my existence to do this," he says.
The sensors on the market at the time were expensive, bulky, and lacked Wi-Fi connectivity. "The cheaper ones didn't work outdoors," adds Dybwad. "What was out there wasn't designed to survive outdoors in the environment."
His prototype used an off-the-shelf breakout circuit board and PVC pipe he cut with a CNC machine in his garage for housing that would stand up to the rigors of the outdoors. Within six months, his first sensors were ready to deploy.
The initial plan was for a nonprofit air quality monitoring group. In the second half of 2015, Dybwad built 80 sensors and distributed them to users for free around the Salt Lake Valley for free. But a consumer market emerged, and PurpleAir pivoted to a for-profit enterprise with a mission.
Then people started asking for sensors they could install at home, and PurpleAir started selling air quality sensors in 2016.
PurpleAir currently sells three models for $199 to $279: two outdoor sensors (one with Wi-Fi and the other with an SD card for locations that lack connectivity) and an indoor sensor with a light "that glows the air quality index color," says Dybwad. "If you're just glancing from across the room, you can tell if the air quality is good or bad."
PurpleAir has shipped more than 30,000 sensors in the last five years. All of the data feeds a real-time air quality map of the U.S. "I never imagined it would become as big as it's become," says Dybwad. "This was a pet project: 'Let's just see what happens.' I figured I would make 10 or 20 sensors and that would be it."
PurpleAir sources PCBs from an Arizona company and other components from largely Utah-based suppliers, and assembles and tests sensors in-house at the company's 9,000-square-foot facility in Draper. "It's basically contract manufacturers who manufacture components for us," says Dybwad. "We do certain things in-house that make sense to do, then we outsource other things that make sense."
He adds, "One of the other things we like is employing people locally and building a business that doesn't just outsource the assembly and manufacturing to China. . . . We'd rather have control over the product ourselves."
The market is 60 percent individuals and 40 percent government and groups focused on air quality. Sales are currently exclusively direct. "We haven't been working with resellers and distributors yet," says Dybwad. "We have had numerous inquiries for that, but typically we've been trying to keep up with the orders, so we haven't needed to try to get other sales channels going."
California is the state with the most deployed sensors, and Washington state has a similar level of concentration. Wildfires have driven sales in both the U.S. and Australia, as volcanic eruptions spiked demand in Hawaii. "It's really locations where they are suffering from smoke issues, like the recent wildfires," says Dybwad. "In the last few years, wildfires have become a big driver of concern and the need for air quality information in California."
PurpleAir's sales have doubled every year since 2018 as the company's online map attracts 1.5 million people a month. The data from the sensors is all available to the public for free, and plans for paid subscriptions.will not alter the policy.
"We really appreciate and value our community and all of our users," says Dybwad. "They are what makes PurpleAir what it is. They're the reason why we exist, the reason what we've grown, the reason why we've evolved the way we have, and we have this close connection with our community. We listen to them, we make changes to our systems based on their feedback, we try to create something that they want."
Challenges: The PurpleAir network is generating vast amounts of data. "It's a massive database, which is great because it gives us a very rich data set for scientists to research," says Dybwad. "The challenge is storing that amount of data, and even a bigger challenge is analyzing it."
Opportunities: Dybwad thinks a marketing push will spur growth. "Instead of being at the whim of wildfires and volcanoes, we are going to be looking to control our destiny a bit more in terms of drawing attention to the map and the fact that it exists, telling people about it more actively, and doing marketing, really."
He also highlights the possibility of new products that detect volatile organic compounds and assorted toxic gases "as the low-cost sensors for those gases become more widespread or more available."
Dybwad also highlights the possibility of taking on outside distribution: "Particularly in somewhere like Europe, it might be useful, because we would ship a large quantity to a single point and distribute it from there, rather than sending individual packages to individual users."
Needs: "The need is good, quality people to help to build the future," says Dybwad, highlighting needs for business development, production, and support staff. "By far, that's the most valuable resource you can need and get -- human resources."