Mar 25, 2013

An Open Source Ecological Entrepreneur

Drew Lerer (Yale F&ES 2013) was walking through an electronics store looking for a part to fix his mother’s computer when it hit him – he could use common household electronic parts to build a low-cost particulate air monitor. Sure, this isn’t something that an ordinary shopper thinks about, but Drew had a history with measuring air quality.

Before coming to Yale, Drew had spent years studying air pollution in Berkeley and Argentina. The monitors that he used were extremely expensive ($1500 - $2000), making it virtually impossible for average citizens to get real time reads on their air quality. Since airborne particulates often affect poor communities the most, Drew wanted to develop an air monitor that was cheap enough to give everyone the power of knowledge about their air quality.

He had a knack for computers from years of troubleshooting family and co-worker technical issues; yet, he had never actually built an air monitor before.  After picking up the part he needed for his mother, he went home and tapped into the open source ecology
community and the open source electronics community.

Like the more widely known open source software movement, open source ecology is a network of hundreds of online volunteers that make their own computer codes, hardware configurations and plans freely available online for others to use. According, the movement is dedicated specifically to “accelerating the growth of the next economy – the Open Source Economy – an economy that optimizes both production and distribution – while promoting environmental regeneration and social justice.” With the help of the open source community, Drew was able to learn how to build a particulate air monitor.

“What’s really amazing about it is not only do they have the ethos of making everything transparent, but there is a community that has formed around it.  Despite not being an electrical engineer, I can tap into that community and have them give me their knowledge. Knowing that I am not an electrical engineer, they break it down into information I can do something with,” said Drew.

With the help of the open source movement, Drew was able to produce a $25 particulate air monitor in just 2 months, while finishing up his studies at F&ES. The monitor primarily uses parts that are found in common household electronics or e-waste, consumer electronics that are discarded. The only piece that would not be found in the average home is the $12 sensor for particulate concentrations. The computer chip that serves as the device’s brain costs only $3 and has the processing power of a whole computer built in 1985.

Right now, the monitor can only measure particulates, but Drew says it would be easy to switch out the sensor for a carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide or volatile organic compound (VOC) sensor. These sensors are more expensive though, so it would bring up the cost of the device.

Drew is still testing and calibrating the device, but he’s already brainstorming ways that he could bring his $25 air monitor to market and help increase knowledge and awareness of particulate pollution.

Low cost air monitors have tremendous potential for addressing public health issues – the very ones Drew spent years researching. Every year, about 2 million people die from respiratory diseases associated with high particulate concentrations. Most of these deaths are due to cooking with biofuels indoors in the developing world and could be avoided. Drew sees potential for these cheap and user-friendly air monitors to help NGOs and research institutions enlist community members in data collection about particulate pollution in the communities that are most affected. This would increase their ability to get widespread and frequent readings on particulate pollution, and might help convince these communities of the need for cleaner cooking stoves and fuels.

Another potential market for the monitor could be high school and undergraduate science programs. The device could be used as an educational tool to teach young environmental science students about air pollution and promote interest in this important topic.

Drew is still thinking and is open to suggestions on how best to turn his impromptu invention into a social enterprise.

The lesson? Next time you are running an errand and have an idea for a new environment-enhancing device, don’t just throw your hands up and assume that you don’t have the technical skills to bring it alive. There is likely an open source community out there to help you make your idea a reality. The open source ecology movement was a tremendous resource for Drew and will be helpful for other ecological entrepreneurs as well.

Marissa Galizia is a joint-degree candidate with the Yale School of Management and School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Before Yale she worked as a consultant
with IBM Global Business Services and is interested in marketing energy efficiency and renewable energy.