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How this Innovative Startup is Transforming Air Pollution into Ink

Air-Ink is one of Solve's eight Circular Economy Solver teams. In this Q&A, hear from Co-Founder and Lead Scientist Anirudh Sharma on creativity, innovation, and bold ideas to tackle air pollution.

How would you encourage aspiring innovators to solve a problem?

I would say, just keep your eyes open. There are interesting opportunities if you just look around. When there’s a problem and people are complaining about it, there’s a way to intervene.

Explore that idea, and then go after it. Don't think too much—that's one mistake a lot of people make. Take this idea, build a narrative or prototype, and see how people respond to it. Just keep testing, and you’ll eventually create something that works.

How did you come up with the idea for Air-Ink?

I grew up in Delhi, one of the world’s most densely populated and polluted cities. Thick dust and chemicals in the air kill about 2.5 million people in India every year, so I’ve always wondered: can we use this pollution in a new way? 

Air pollution makes things dirty; it turns your clothes yellow; people complain about it. I wanted to take that same property—that it changes the color of your clothes—to make a new product: pigments. We decided to work with the color black because it‘s used everywhere—in fabric, paint, printing, plastics, and more. 

Pollution is created from many different sources, and it’s already out there. Why not upcycle it into something new? Through Air-Ink, we use this opportunity to sequester carbon emissions and turn them into something of value; we’re turning air pollution into ink.

Have you experienced any challenges while building Air-Ink?

The earliest stages of any good idea are very challenging. People are easily intimidated by the arduous technical work behind a new idea, so they tend to think it won’t work, even if they are excited about it. When I said I wanted to turn carbon pollution into pigments, I recognized that excitement in people on top of their doubts, and that was what drove me. I was like, ok, let’s start building this carbon emission capture system to make it happen.

Sometimes people question us, saying, hey, you are monetizing pollution, so you are appreciating pollution. In that sense, another challenge is how to build our narrative the right way so that people don't misunderstand our goal, or to ensure no one starts producing pollution just to make ink. All these little things have to come into play.

What’s next for Air-Ink?

We have been fortunate that industries are adopting the Air-Ink product and see value in it. Now that our technology has stabilized, I want to take a more strategic approach to scaling the business. I have always been a scientist and inventor, so my next step will be to collaborate with people who understand business better than I do, which is very exciting. We also want to collaborate with people who really understand our target customers, like designers and printers. 

What do you think is most important when tackling air pollution as a broader issue?

Air pollution is such a huge problem that there must be more than one solution. What we are doing is just a small part. There is also policy, and we are all waiting for governments to take the largest steps. But air pollution is an economics problem as well. 

The countries with the highest carbon footprint are often the least polluted places, because they can afford to keep their air clean—while much of their production is done in developing countries. At the end of the day, tackling air pollution is about individual choices that we make, and we should all be mindful of how much we consume.

Interested in this solution? Learn more about Air-Ink and the other Circular Economy Solver teams.

This interview originally appeared on the Sincerely, Hueman podcast.


Photo courtesy of Graviky Labs

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