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Lebanon company’s smoking indicator tapped to tackle vaping detection

  • Co-founder of FreshAir Sensor Jack O’Toole, standing, talks with Anani Sawadogo, the chief software engineer at the company in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. Chris Billiau, a software engineer, left, and Manoj Virigineni, a data scientist, work at their desks. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Co-founder of FreshAir Sensor, Joe BelBruno, left, talks with Matt Curtin, an engineer at the company in Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 3, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Senior scientist Andrei Burnin conducts tests on vaping chemistry in the FreshAir Sensor labs in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • FreshAir Sensor created a device that can detect cigarette or marijuana fumes in rooms. The company has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop and commercialize a sensor to detect vaping. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Trip Davis, the CEO of FreshAir Sensor, left, talks with Kwame Ohene-Adu, the chief product developer engineer at the company in Lebanon, N.H., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, October 05, 2019

LEBANON — Last Sunday, a resident in a public housing apartment in Westbrook, Maine, smoked something at 2:58 a.m. Thirty-eight minutes later, at 3:36 a.m., Jon Clark’s received an alert of the incident on his phone.

The next day the resident got a hand-delivered notice that they had violated the Westbrook Housing Authority’s prohibition against tenants smoking inside apartments. Along with a warning that further infractions could result in eviction, it included a copy of a graph with a sharp spike indicating the exact moment the nocturnal smoker lit up their tobacco or marijuana.

“We’ve heard every excuse,” said Clark, director of facilities management at the 550-unit Westbrook Housing Authority, about tenants’ reactions when confronted with evidence recorded by a battery pack-sized sensor that detects smoking in rooms and sends real-time alerts to recipients. ” ‘It was my son visiting’ or ‘I was cooking eggplant. I’ve heard eggplant contains nicotine,’ ” Clark related of explanations given for the alerts over the three years since he first installed the sensors.

But Clark said the cigarette and marijuana smoking sensor device, which is made by a Lebanon company, is “definitely having an impact” on curbing smoking inside the public housing apartments since he first installed them three years ago.

How does he know?

“We’re seeing a lot more people smoking in the outdoor designated area in winter,” he said.

And now FreshAir Sensor, which has a waiting list of customers wanting to install its palm-size device, is gearing up to tackle the latest nicotine health scourge: vaping.

Last month the company received $225,000 in funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop and commercialize a device to detect vaping. FreshAir researchers have been working on the vaping detection device in the laboratory for the past year, and although they have gotten it to function under lab conditions, “we need to get it to work in a dorm room or school bathroom,” said co-founder Jack O’Toole.

Originally promoted as a safe alternative to smoking tobacco, the health risks — in some cases fatal — with vaping are becoming increasingly apparent, and FreshAir hopes to “leverage (its) sensor expertise” to help curb youth vaping. The company foresees the primary market for the vaping sensors, assuming the technical challenges can be surmounted, as being schools, college dorms and military housing.

“It’s an engineering problem, and we’ll work it out,” assured co-founder Joe BelBruno.

FreshAir Sensor, launched in 2013 by BelBruno, a Dartmouth chemistry professor, and O’Toole, then a Tuck School of Business student, is among a handful of companies that have made it through the research and development stage and quickly scaled up to manufacturing with their product at the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center incubator at Centerra Resource Park in Lebanon.

Initially funded with grants from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute and investors through the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, the company has since raised “double-digit” millions from private investors, said Trip Davis, the former director of Dartmouth’s Office of Entrepreneurship & Technology Transfer who joined FreshAir as CEO in 2016.

More than just the health risks related to second-hand smoke, there are strong economic incentives as reasons why hotels and apartment landlords do not want smokers on their premises. Residue from tobacco stains the walls, ceilings and draperies, requiring a cleaning crew to go in afterward to give the place a good scrub — an added cost burden at the same time the idled room is not generating revenue.

“Usually we’d find out after the fact the next morning when housekeeping went in,” said Robins Patel, a principal in JNR Management, a Weston, Mass.-based owner and manager of eight hotels.

Patel said he has installed FreshAir sensors in two of his company’s hotels and is rolling it out to others in the group this fall.

His hotels warn guests that they can incur a $250 “cleaning fee” if cigarette smoke is detected in their room. Before deployment of the sensor, it was difficult to pin blame on the guest unless “you walk the hallways and sniff under the door,” he said.

The cleaning fee surcharge, Patel explained, is designed to act more as a deterrent than an actual fine — it has been applied only twice so far this year — but he noted a documented record of the transgression makes it much easier to levy when they have to.

The sensor that detects the particles generated by the “combustion” of nicotine and marijuana was developed out of BelBruno’s research in polymers at Dartmouth. When tobacco or marijuana is burned, the heat throws off invisible particles with specific molecular properties that are recognized by “receptors” in a polymer film printed on a stamp-size substrate square.

(Contrary to popular misconception, the sensor does not detect “smoke” like home smoke detectors and, in fact, the particles accelerate through a room at much higher velocity and independently of the wafting fumes.)

The units, which plug into an electrical socket, transmit data via Wi-Fi to a receiver, which then uploads it to the cloud, where it can be accessed by the customer. To date, Davis said sales of the device have reached the “low tens of thousands” and have been placed in “hundreds of locations.”

Perhaps signaling the size of the market, he said FreshAir currently has received 4,400 “in-bound requests” for the sensors and the 23-employee company is shipping them out of the door in Lebanon as quickly as it can assemble them. (FreshAir also contracts with four teams of programmers and engineers outside of the United States, including people in Pakistan and Columbia.)

Davis, although declining to discuss financial details of the company, acknowledged that FreshAir is not yet profitable — although that is not uncommon in the early years of tech startups.

“We’re in a growth phase,” he said.

Critically, FreshAir’s three-person executive team emphasizes, the smoking sensors do not let the customer know whether the detected particles are generated by tobacco or marijuana. It only reveals the presence of a combustible substance, not the kind. That’s a minefield that FreshAir has no desire to wade into, Davis said.

“We’re in the data business, not the drama business,” he explained.

Like with any detection device, however, those for whom it is intended will always look for ways to disable it (the devices are bolted to the electrical socket so they can’t be removed).

Mike Vecchi, director of information technology at the Worcester (Mass.) Housing Authority, said FreshAir’s devices are installed only in apartments where the occupant has a history of flaunting the no-smoking rules. The devices are removed after a six-month probationary period if there have been no recorded smoking transgressions during that time.

But once when a workman went to remove the FreshAir sensor at the end of the six months, it was discovered the occupant had covered the sensor with tape — which earned the occupant another six months monitoring period.

“It’s sort of funny but not funny,” said Vecchi, who said the housing authority tries to get nicotine-addicted residents into smoking cessation programs to help them “kick the habit.”

Patel, the Massachusetts hotel owner, said that although the room-booking contract the guest signs when registering warns that they acknowledge liability for the $250 cleaning fee in the event they are caught smoking, guests are not specifically informed that the room is electronically monitored to detect smoking in order to reduce the opportunity of risking an attempt to disable it (one guest tried covering the device with a shower cap, he related).

“They’ll probably eventually find out,” Patel said of guests catching on to FreshAir’s smoking detection device. “But for now it’s our little secret.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.