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In the midst of a serious climate crisis, are you suggesting that health insurers are blissfully missing out on one of the most critical underwriting factors?

May 14, 2019

Praveen Gupta (PG) in a conversation with Akshay Joshi (AJ), CEO  Poor air quality is an outcome of what we have unleashed on ourselves in the name of development. The ramifications go far beyond respiratory health. India accounts for 8 out of the 10 worst polluted cities in the world. And the decline is set to continue in the foreseeable future. Akshay Joshi and team have a vision that has implications not just for health insurers but also in facilitating sustainable homes, communities and workplaces.

“Imagine, in the present day over 1,600 children under the age of 5 die as a result of air pollution, every single day, according to the WHO. It’s amazing that no one has measured it in any meaningful, large-scale way.”

PG: Let’s have some insights into the origin of AMBEE?

AJ:  My co-founder Madhusudhan Anand, also called Maddy, is a technologist and computer scientist. About 4 years ago, he moved to a new home. His kid began waking up early every morning breathless and choking. Doctors were unable to diagnose him, and Maddy observed this happened only at home. He figured it was air-related, and googled the air quality. The nearest air monitoring station was about 13 km away and showed things were fine. So he hacked together a sensor and analysed the data over a few days. He found that the air quality near his house was over 800 µg/m2., whereas the safe limit in India is under 50. This is the sort of number seen in Delhi in winter.

He drove around with this sensor and built a heat-map to pinpoint the source. It turned out to be a garment factory. To avoid pollution control offices, which work 9-5, the factory turned on its boilers at 4 am. This meant that by 9 am, the smoke from their wood-fired boilers had dissipated, but at 5-6 am it was peaking. Adults woke up with itchy eyes and throats, but infants were heavily affected. This avoidance by changing working hours is something we’ve seen multiple times in different cities.

The doctors immediately signed off on this diagnosis, and other parents borrowed the device as well. This led to Maddy realising this might be a viable business. Over the course of time, once Jaideep and I joined as co-founders, we pivoted from a hardware solution to a data one. We realised that it was the data that empowered Maddy to save his son, and that data is far more sustainable as a business than hardware, especially while starting up in India.

PG: So what exactly is your business about?

AJ: Ambee builds and supplies hyperlocal air quality information and analytics. We aim to tell people what they breathe on an immediate and hyperlocal basis. This means that our granularity for large cities will be down to a city block, or possibly even lower – and this information will be updated every few minutes. This system does not currently exist anywhere in the world.

Air pollution has been classified as the world’s gravest health and environmental threat by the WHO. It is responsible for a majority of heart disease, cancers, and even diabetes onset. All these correlations are built by the WHO, by UNICEF, and by researchers, but for closed control groups. No baseline data set for air quality exists for larger geographies on a granular level, until now.

With Ambee’s data, an individual can make better choices for their life, an insurer can better price risk, and a city can effectively implement clean air policies to better the lives of citizens.

PG: Apart from monetising the data you gather how does it make the world any better?

AJ: An individual has the power to choose how to live their life on healthier terms – the best time to go for a run, whether today you should bike to work, what time your kid should go to play, or even which school to attend. For example, the NHS spends over GBP 20 bn dealing with COPD, asthma, and other lung diseases caused by air pollution. Our system allows instant detection, better allocation of resources, both of which lower incidences of such diseases in the long run, saving both resources and human lives.

Historically, awareness of pollution has been the first step towards better air quality. This has been seen historically in California and London in the 60s, in New York in the 70s, and most recently in Beijing. All these regions have vastly improved their breathability after data availability has led to public pressure. Delhi is starting to see similar results.

PG: How meaningful would your data analytics be to the insurance industry?

AJ: We believe that a baseline data set for air quality across the world does not currently exist. All information is piecemeal. Insurance depends, amongst other things, on the ability to understand the factors that cause mortality and / or loss (please correct me if I am wrong). With our data, an insurer would be able to understand the difference in risk of mortality between different post codes, or even neighbourhoods, based on air quality. Over a 5-10 year period, a mean reading differing by as little as 10 µg/m2. could have a significant increase in risks of lung cancer, heart disease and enlargement, and various other health factors. This is one of the use cases for insurance that we have ideated currently.

PG: In the midst of a serious climate crisis, are you suggesting that health insurers are blissfully missing out on the most critical underwriting factor?And that virtually no one knows the quality of air they ‘consume’?

AJ: Yes, current air quality readings are limited to expensive sensors used by governments. They have the following issues:

  1. Priced to governments at INR 1-2 crores. Mumbai has 22 of these sensors based on the MPCB website.
  2. Each has a monthly maintenance cost that could run into lakhs. This, and the above, are the reason that cities cannot afford a high spatial density of such sensors. These are reference grade sensors that measure air quality 30 feet above ground level. Most humans breathe between 2 and 6 feet off the ground. Particulate pollution is heavier than air, so what you’re breathing is much worse at ground level than at 30 ft. No real clarity on whether this is being measure properly.
  3. 16 sensors for a 500 km2 city is not very useful, when every sensor has an acceptable outer radius of accuracy of 150 m2.
  4. New sensing tech (like we use) has evolved dramatically in the last few years. There is now increasing worldwide consensus on the reliability and accuracy of these, which previously didn’t exist.

PG: Your long-term vision?

AJ: Ambee aims to measure what everyone breathes. Air is literally the most important thing – 2 minutes without it and you’re history. Air quality is a good indicator of health, a good predictor of disease and mortality, and currently a huge environmental threat. Imagine, in the present day over 1,600 children under the age of 5 die as a result of air pollution, every single day, according to the WHO. It’s amazing that no one has measured it in any meaningful, large-scale way. From our personal experience, we know that this information should be in everyone’s hands.

PG: Many thanks and best wishes!

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  1. Chandraprakash Jain permalink

    An eye opener for me. Wish Indian Insurers wake up and start using cutting edge state of art but cost effective technology to better price insurance solutions and start giving back to society by making people realized what kind of environment they are living in.

  2. Thanks! This is meant to be a wake up call, CP! Best, Praveen

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