She's Breathing New Life Into Air Purification
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Jaya Rao wants to save you from breathing toxic air.
By Molly Fosco
As California wildfires raged through Sonoma and Napa counties in late 2017, Tim Worboys couldn’t set foot outside. The thick smoke posed a severe threat to his asthma, but even the indoor air quality was starting to worry him. That is until Worboys turned on his new air purifier, a magical device that instantly had him breathing more easily.
Only it wasn’t magic at all. It was Molekule — a purifier that uses a new type of filter to scrub the air. The San Francisco-based clean air tech startup, led by its 32-year-old COO, Jaya Rao, is taking off, and just in the nick of time. Between 2014 and 2016, the annual national air quality report card from the American Lung Association found that more than one in four Americans live in counties with unhealthful levels of particle or ozone pollution — putting them at risk for asthma attacks and lung cancer, among other diseases. Using Molekule’s advanced air purification technology, Rao wants to bring clean air to more people throughout the country — and globally — before environmental conditions deteriorate further.
Rao grew up in Gainesville, where her father, Yogi Goswami, worked as an engineering professor at the University of Florida. Her parents emigrated from India in the early 1970s and raised Rao and her older brother, Dilip Goswami, with native cultural influences — from traditional foods to classical Indian dance, which Rao still performs. Following in their father’s footsteps, the siblings enrolled at the University of Florida, where Rao studied mechanical engineering and Goswami pursued electrical and computer engineering, and then both earned graduate degrees at Stanford.
You can’t just solve this with medicines.
At Stanford, Rao joined ChangeLabs — a platform designed to create tools for tackling urgent global challenges. Around the same time, she began suffering terrible migraines, and her father proposed a solution: an air purifier he’d been developing for years to relieve her brother’s chronic allergies and asthma. “I was really skeptical at first,” Rao recalls. But after using the device for a few days, her migraines vanished. The efficacy of the technology, coupled with her desire to make an impact, was the impetus behind Molekule and the commercialization of her father’s design. “I didn’t want to look at just one small solution,” Rao says. “I wanted to transform really complex ecosystems, and I knew we had a solution to an entrenched problem.”
That problem was poor indoor air quality. Some pollutants enter through open windows and doors but many are generated by everyday activities like cooking, laundry and vacuuming — daily chores that people aren’t aware could be making them sick. Rao and Goswami launched the company in 2014, raising money from Uncork Capital and Crosslink Capital to grow the startup. In just one year, between 2017 and 2018, they expanded from 11 to 80 employees.
Before Molekule, air purification technology hadn’t progressed in decades. “The last time a new air filter emerged was in the 1940s when doctors were still prescribing cigarettes to people for their health,” Rao says. The HEPA filter, still the most commonly used in air purifiers, works by gathering fibers from the air, but it doesn’t eliminate them, Rao explains. “Things can grow on those fibers or they can escape the filter altogether because they’re so microscopic.” Molekule takes a completely different approach: Their technology, called Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO), relies on free radicals — the same radicals used to kill cancer cells — to destroy pollutants by oxidation; the nanotechnology is capable of blasting pollutants that are 1,000 times smaller than what gets trapped by HEPA filters.
Rao’s mission took on greater immediacy in 2017 during the Sonoma and Napa County wildfires, and yet again this past November, as the Camp Fire in Northern California and Woolsey Fire in Southern California raged out of control — sending smoke to cities as far away as Chicago. During the 2017 fires, Rao was pregnant with her son Anjanay. “The wildfires made me a fierce advocate for air purifiers because of the risk of birth defects,” she says. Smoke inhalation by pregnant women can cause damage to the baby’s nervous system, according to the CDC.
But some in the field argue there’s nothing wrong with traditional HEPA filters. “The technology works well at removing particles indoors,” says Doug Brugge, professor of public health at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. “It depends on the quality but at the higher end, [HEPA filters] are very good at it.” And if you’re strapped for cash, a HEPA filter fits the bill. At around $150 on Amazon, they’re far cheaper than the $799 price tag for a Molekule.
Rao knows the technology is costly right now, but she doesn’t want that to be a barrier for those who really need it. In 2017, Molekule donated 50 devices to fire stations and evacuation facilities in California where the fires had been particularly bad. And her mission remains the same: to provide relief from the worsening air quality around the world. Rising temperatures are boosting carbon dioxide levels in the air, which can increase pollen production, according to a 2016 report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. “Pollen blooms are higher, mold blooms are higher, and you can’t just solve this with medicines,” Rao says.
It’s serious and pressing work, but Goswami says his sister and co-founder has a goofy side too. “This year at the off-site we had a talent show and Jaya did a lip-sync battle in front of everyone as an icebreaker,” he says, smiling.
For Rao’s part, she’s focused on the company’s future, a vision that could take a while to take shape, if only for her commitment to due diligence. “We’re not going to take a shortcut,” she says. “We’re building a company with a strong scientific foundation because that’s the mission we set out to do.”
As the world’s air quality continues to worsen, it’s easy to yield to cynics who say we’ll never stop pollution at its source. Rao is choosing the harder and more hopeful path, one captured in the R. Buckminster Fuller quote posted on Molekule’s website: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” If she succeeds, we may all breathe a sigh of relief.
5 Questions for Jaya Rao
- What’s the last book you finished? Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
- What do you worry about? Unfortunately, more things than I can name in one sentence … Different worries come up for me every day and every moment. They usually point to a problem that I need to solve that I haven’t realized yet. Specifically, pointing to something that I need to look into deeper to understand the true source or cause of my worry. But it’s never what I initially think on the surface.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Faith in a bigger vision and cause than myself.
- Who’s your hero? Martin Luther King Jr.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Visiting Dharamshala.