Air quality control helps prevent sick building syndrome, which occurs when 20% of a building’s occupants experience discomfort due to proliferation of microorganisms and chemical particles (image: Wikimedia)
Published on 05/13/2021
By Suzel Tunes | FAPESP Research for Innovation – Omni-electronica is a startup that was thought up in the lecture halls of the University of São Paulo’s Engineering School (POLI-USP) in Brazil. Electronic engineering graduate students Matheus Barros Manini, John Edward Esquiagola Aranda and Arthur Sequeira Aikawa were enthusiastic about research on the Internet of Things (IoT) and decided to make their ideas into products.
The firm took shape in July 2017 when the partners won support from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE) for the development of Spiri, a multisensor system designed to monitor indoor air quality. The name Spiri is inspired by the Latin for breathe (spirare), Manini explains.
“The proposal submitted to PIPE corresponded to Aikawa’s course completion project. When it was approved, we founded the firm. That was in July 2016,” Manini recalls. In 2017, the startup joined the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (CIETEC), an incubator attached to the University of São Paulo (USP) and the Energy and Nuclear Research Institute (IPEN).
Project Spiri has now won PIPE Stage 2 approval and extended its functionality. “The sensors identify temperature, relative humidity, sound pressure, luminosity, the presence of people in the environment, carbon gas, volatile organic compounds, and three particle sizes [PM1, PM2.5 and PM10],” Manini says.
Permanent control of indoor air quality helps prevent sick building syndrome, which, according to Manini, occurs when approximately 20% of the occupants of a building experience such symptoms as eye and nose irritation, headache, dizziness and/or nausea due to proliferating microorganisms and chemical particles. Maintenance of a healthy environment reduces absenteeism and raises worker productivity by 5%-6%, he claims.
Electricity savings are another economic advantage of the new system, Manini adds. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems continuously exchange 30% of the indoor air to maintain adequate levels of CO2. “These systems are typically oversized for a building with intermittent occupancy. With smart sensors, the percentage exchanged can be sized in line with the number of people in the environment, guaranteeing air quality with energy savings of up to 40%,” he says.
The market already knows various environmental monitoring products, he adds, but no competitors in Brazil or abroad had yet offered multiple sensors integrated into one and the same system. In October, while Project Spiri was beginning PIPE Stage 2, the proprietors of Omni found out about a US startup that was developing a project with similar characteristics.
Additionally, with support from PIPE, Omni began proof-of-concept testing of another project called Piscari. Piscari is an enhancement of a system used widely in the retail industry to monitor customers’ movements around the store and their interest in specific products. “The name comes from the Latin for fishing, in a reference to fishing for information and prospective customers in a retail context,” Manini explains. The main idea behind Piscari is to use the toolset known as retail intelligence to optimize physical store operations.
“Although they seem very different, the two monitoring systems are based on the same communications technology, with a network of wireless sensors and the use of artificial intelligence techniques for analysis and control of the parameters,” Manini says. The difference lies in the type of sensor used and the application.
Project Piscari has also created a prototype of a product with Brazilian technology and is awaiting evaluation of a proposal presented to PIPE before embarking on stage 2 of the project, which is product development. This project aims to refine beacon technology, which uses sensors with Bluetooth connectivity. Beacons capture signals emitted by smartphones and tablets, locating people and monitoring their movement through an environment passively and without the need for application software.
Beacons are widely used in the retail sector, where they show which gondolas attract most customer attention, for example. They are also starting to become popular in manufacturing, where they can be used to monitor employees and equipment. The point of Piscari is to improve the use of beacons by adding functionality and the same multisensor concept as in the previous project.
“By interconnecting the beacons, the system ceases to function as a static device and becomes a genuine sensor network that can adapt, change advertisements dynamically, and track people’s movement passively,” Manini says. “The addition of other sensors also permits other kinds of monitoring of the environment and other parameters.”
According to Manini, the initial aims of the project have been achieved, except for one that was reformulated when Omni’s proprietors took the PIPE Training Program in High-Tech Entrepreneurship (PIPE Empreendedor). “The project initially called for consumer identification using their cellphones’ Bluetooth connection,” Manini says, but in studies conducted during the training program, the researchers concluded there was an ethical problem with this functionality and changed the project: Piscari now identifies only people’s movement through the environment and preserves their anonymity.
Omni’s participation in PIPE Empreendedor also helped the startup establish a strategy for commercializing Spiri. It is focusing particularly on hospitals and laboratories, which need to monitor air quality continuously to avoid contamination and hospital-acquired infections, but Manini believes air quality monitoring may also interest other customers, such as gyms, which should want to save on electricity and make their environments more productive for physical exercise.
“Our future vision is to have an all-around product that integrates sensors of every kind into a single platform for the control of virtualized environments,” Manini says. This product could be customized by adding or subtracting different types of sensors to meet each customer’s needs. For now, the firm continues to enhance both products in parallel while establishing business partnerships. “We’ve signed an agreement to distribute Spiri with companies that supply air quality solutions,” he adds.
Piscari recently completed minimum viable product (MVP) testing to validate the system. “It was experimentally installed in a few stores, which are now interested in acquiring it,” Manini says. In addition to stores, fitness centers are also potential customers for the startup. “They’re interested in monitoring and measuring the use of their equipment,” which can be done with networked beacon sensors, he explains.