According to the American Lung Association, nearly half of U.S. citizens live in areas in which the air has unhealthy levels of ozone and pollution. Breathing air is fundamental to human life, but the EPA likens breathing low quality air to “getting a sunburn on your lungs,” and states that continually doing so can have negative implications for your health. Protecting your lungs from pollution in the air is not as simple as rubbing aloe lotion on your skin after getting a sunburn, so what is there to do?
These are the types of questions accomplished entrepreneur Dirk Swart lives for. Dirk is the Founder of Wicked Device LLC, an engineering startup proudly based in Ithaca, New York. Dirk started Wicked Device as a place to let all of his ideas come to life, and he and his team have had a lot of successes over the past few years. To name a few, Wicked Device’s Air Quality Egg earned a “Best of Kickstarter 2012” distinction, and the company has several new products in the electronics space being released to Barnes & Noble this Christmas.
Dirk recently took some time to speak with Entrepreneurship@Dyson about Wicked Device, his love of Ithaca, and his enduring entrepreneurial spirit. His thoughts are shared below:
What was the inspiration for the Air Quality Egg?
It started with the motivation that air quality is a big deal, because it’s a part of understanding your environment. In the past five years, sensors have emerged that can accurately and cheaply assess the state of pollution. There were no sub-$1,000 products before that time that did the sensing. Now there are, but ours are still rated amongst the best. Ours can outperform $800,000 products. People breathe bad air, and they get hay fever, but they can’t figure out why. We decided to produce a low-cost consumer way to do that, and that’s the Air Quality Egg. We’re producing it as an open source product, so everything about it is freely available online. It’s not a great way to make $1,000,000, but it’s a great way to give something to the community and be part of that.
How has the Air Quality Egg community grown?
People self-report their data. If you go to airqualityegg.com, there’s a self-reported map built in the product, and some people choose to disclose their information. Some people choose not to report their information to the web, and that’s their right. Most of the data is open, and the data is uploaded to an EU-funded project which is part of the Open Data Institute. There’s a strong trend for people to charge for data like that, and I think that’s totally okay. We’ve chosen to make our data open though because in decades to come, having access to this kind of data will be useful.
Do you see the consumer market for air quality data evolving, even with governments investing into it?
There are only two air quality stations in New York City, and one of the things we’ve discovered is that pollutants are highly localized. A great example of that is on a side of a road: pollution right next to a road is much higher than pollution 20 miles from the road. Having access to government data is great, but it doesn’t answer the problem that individuals have about their specific environment.
What other products have you been working on following your success of the Air Quality Egg?
We’ve been working on a wearable electronics kit, which will be available in Barnes & Noble this Christmas. A lot of people like making robots out of electronics, but some people want to make their clothes blink on and off, or have a bag that tweets when somebody takes their phone out of it. Wearable electronics is the field that takes care of that. We want to get people into electronics, and we want to get people into programming, and this is a web platform where you can upload your code. It’s a backend way of letting people sneak into coding. It’s got everything you need in terms of sewing needles, thread, electronics, videos online, and more. It’s aimed at girls between 13 and 18 getting into electronics. We’ve created something that gives them success right out of the gate.
How do you see the two products relating to the overall brand?
We love electronics, and we love microcontrollers. We think that the “Internet of Things” hasn’t even begun to get started. It’s such a big thing, we think people need to understand it. By producing easy-to-understand products, where there’s no confusion about the data and the unit, we can teach people that they can live their lives without delegating to some third-party corporation.
How do you balance marketing the brand of Wicked Device and your individual products?
When we go to trade shows as Wicked Device, people seem a bit unengaged. When we go as Air Quality Egg, however, we get a lot more interest because people understand air quality. We’ve found marketing the product to be successful over the brand. You have to treat each product as a startup idea, and each product takes a life of its own over time. I love the community that builds around that, and we’ve pursued this with that goal of community in mind.
What does having an entrepreneurial culture mean to you?
An entrepreneurial culture is one where it’s okay to fail. The defining feature for a lot of organizations is that it’s okay to take risks, but it’s not okay to fail. The problem: that’s what taking risks means. You’ve got to learn from your failure, but cultures in a business that don’t allow failure are not entrepreneurial. Being an entrepreneur defines being able to fail, and a lot of times, a failure becomes a success. Failure is never total; it’s always partial because it allows you to become a success the next time.
Why did you choose to make Ithaca the center of your business?
Ithaca’s a great place to live. If you want to live, and you want to have a family, Ithaca’s a great place. I’m not from here originally (I’m from South Africa), and people always ask me, do you like living in the U.S.? I’ll say I definitely like living in Ithaca. We think the kind of people that we find here are great people. It’s just a great community, and we enjoy it.
Is making the product in Ithaca a large source of pride for you?
We want to create for our community. Made in America is just another way of saying that we’re abiding by a set of environmental standards, human resources, and other constraints to produce the product responsibly. I like making something locally that makes jobs for the local community.
What drives you to keep working on Wicked Device?
I enjoy making things. I enjoy working with my hands, and it’s something that’s less prevalent nowadays. I enjoy having a space to put ideas. The first day we started Wicked Device, we set ourselves a sales goal, and we said, “We’ll be successful if we sell 10 products to 10 people we don’t know.” We did that in the first week, and I get a kick out of seeing people use the product. It’s an incredibly satisfying feeling to have them come up and say, “Hey, I love your product.” I encourage anyone to try to experience that as well.