Movie theatres are the first to shut whenever Covid-19 infections go up. But when PVR Cinemas, India’s largest multiplex chain, welcomed back audiences in November, it did so with the promise of clean, sterilised cinema halls. This also meant purified air for patrons, to put them at ease about sitting in closed auditoriums. For this, the company turned to an anti-viral air purification device called Wolf Airmask, developed by home-grown start-up Allabout Innovations.
“We evaluated several solutions that can make cinema halls secure,” says Kapil Agarwal, Joint Managing Director of UFO Moviez India, which installed the device across PVR’s 856 screens. “We found the Wolf Airmask to be the only device that had been tested on coronavirus in an ICMR-approved lab.” Agarwal says the company has received several enquiries about the device since it was installed at PVR. The digital services provider has exclusive distribution rights to sell the device to cinemas in India and the Middle-East, and the government sector in India.
Born in the depths of the lockdown in the coastal town of Alappuzha, Kerala, the Wolf Airmask is seeing its deployment both in India and in overseas markets. Sujesh Sugunan, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Allabout Innovations, credits everything to serendipity.
It all began when Sugunan, 46, who also runs a marketing and events business in Dubai, was confined to his home in Alappuzha during the first wave of the virus. He utilised the time to rekindle his connection with a voluntary scientific community he has been a part of since the time he worked at the Electronics Research & Development Centre of India (ER&DCI) Institute of Technology, Thiruvananthapuram, some 20 years ago. The community once again banded together to offer technical assistance to government agencies during the early phase of the Covid-19 outbreak. The team learnt about ozone generators being used in Germany and Japan for sanitisation, but their attempts at importing ozone modules from China were unsuccessful.
With the help of some research papers from the University of Oxford and Hamburg University, this group of scientists built a prototype of an ozone generator at a fraction of a cost at which it is available in the international markets. The device could sanitise an area of 5,000 sq. ft and the community offered about 25 of them free of cost to government agencies. But there was demand from all quarters. To keep up with it, Sugunan set up Allabout Innovations to manufacture the device commercially.
Back to the Drawing Board
Ozone, however, is highly reactive and needs to be handled carefully. “Ozone has a half-life of about 28 minutes; no one should enter the territory [where sanitisation took place] during the time. To cover more areas, they weren’t following the protocols strictly [and] people were falling ill,” says Sugunan.
The team went back to the drawing board and began thinking about building a solution where people could be present during sanitisation. That’s when the concept of negative ions popped up.
Negative ions are odourless, tasteless, and invisible molecules floating in the atmosphere that have been charged with electricity. They are capable of cleaning airborne allergens such as pollen, mould spores, bacteria and viruses.
“Ions are capable of interacting with the surface proteins of any kind of virus. In the case of coronavirus, we have the S protein, which is positively charged. Ions are predominantly negatively charged and can bond with the S protein’s positive charge, which then becomes inactivated. Once the protein is neutralised, it cannot penetrate into the cell,” explains Prince Xavier, Scientist (Computational Chemist) in Molecular Chemistry, Bangalore University, who is part of the community and was an early advisor to Sugunan.
Sugunan gathered a team under his newly-formed company and built a negative ion generator device—more commonly called air ioniser—and christened it Wolf Airmask. Air ionisers use high voltage to ionise or electrically charge air molecules and release negative ions.
The start-up tested the device on the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the ICMR-approved Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram. The test revealed that Wolf Airmask is efficient in rupturing the viral envelope of SARS-CoV-2 in just 15 minutes, reducing the Covid-19 viral load by 99.9 per cent. The device has also been successfully tested against other viruses, including E. Coli and MS2 bacteriophage at several ICMR and NABL-approved labs since, besides the Dubai Central Laboratory.
Using plasma air sterilisation technology, the Wolf Airmask, for which the start-up has filed a patent, can discharge up to 100 trillion negative ions per cubic cm per second. Available in two capacities, the device can work for a minimum of 60,000 hours—or about 6.8 years—without any maintenance. While the technology is not new, the use case is, the start-up says.
The device is currently produced at its Kerala unit, the capacity of which is being enhanced to 15,000 units a month from 10,000. The company is also in the process of setting up manufacturing units in the UAE and Qatar, and a large factory is in the pipeline in Karnataka. The company aims to ramp up total production to 40,000-50,000 units every month.
According to the company, demand for the Wolf Airmask is strong abroad, especially in the Middle-East. Atlas Medical, a 45-year-old medical equipment distribution company in the UAE, is in the final stages of negotiations with the Dubai Health Authority (a government organisation overseeing the health system of Dubai) to install the device across its healthcare facilities. V. Kalyan Sundaram, General Manager of Atlas Medical, expects the deal to be a gateway to the larger market in the country.
“We did some local testing of the product, including with Dubai Municipality and other customers, and the results were really good. We are currently installing the device at several government and private enterprises in the UAE, including RAK Hospital, BYJU’S, Radisson Hotel Group, and the Roads & Transport Authority of Dubai,” Sundaram says. He expects to sell 25,000-30,000 units a year in the UAE besides taking it to the African markets.
While the UAE was its first international market, Sugunan says the Wolf Airmask is currently present in 30 countries spread across all continents. The company has set up offices in the UAE, Qatar, Finland, the US and Australia where it plans to operate on its own, while it aims to penetrate all other markets, including India, via distribution partners.
Back home, Sugunan says Mumbai-based UFO Moviez, with about 10,600 partner movie theatres, has committed to installing the device at 5,600 theatres. Every theatre requires around 25-30 machines. The company has already supplied some 4,500 units to PVR. Agarwal of UFO Moviez says his company has deployed around 10,000 devices across sectors, and anticipates sales of about 50,000-100,000 in the next one year.
While the start-up may have a patent for the product, what is to stop other companies from using similar technology for a similar use case? Sugunan seems unperturbed. “Demand is emerging from every corner of the world. The size of the market is huge and you will soon see a lot more companies coming up with this kind of product,” he says. Leveraging the first-mover advantage, Allabout Innovations is building a strong distribution network through strategic tie-ups. This has also helped the start-up establish partnerships with governments and companies in a very short span of time, he says.
Not Just for Covid-19
Besides this, Sugunan sees a larger market for the device’s many use cases. In Japan and Finland, for instance, negative ion generator devices are extensively used to help people fight stress and fatigue, as a higher negative ion concentration in the breathable atmosphere could increase levels of the mood hormone serotonin, he says. Negative ion generators are already used in high-end cars, while some aircraft also deploy them on long-haul flights.
Another use case could be agriculture. “We did research to study how effective Wolf Airmask is for plants. The study showed that it increases germination levels by 30 per cent and yield by 20 per cent. We are currently testing machines for agricultural purpose with a Dubai-based agri-tech company,” Sugunan says.
Abdul Rahman R.S., General Manager at GreenGate Co., a private agency that works closely with the government of UAE on infrastructure and community development, is planning to make the Wolf Airmask available to glass houses in the country. They are also in the process of completing a pilot study of the device with G-42, an artificial intelligence and cloud computing company in Abu Dhabi, and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the largest energy company in the UAE. “We are working closely with the government and corporates who are involved in stabilising our community’s health and safety,” says Rahman.
The Wolf Airmask comes in two variants that cover 500 sq. ft and 1,000 sq. ft space, and are priced at `24,780 and `35,400 (both prices including GST), respectively. The company is currently building a portable model that can cover 250 sq. ft, targeting the business-to-consumer (B2C) market. Sugunan predicts that every home or office space will have a negative ion generator or negative ion generating plant. “We are 100 per cent sure that after television, this is going to be the next big white good to hit the market,” he says. While that is debatable, what is certain is that if Covid-19 persists, the demand for purified air—and air ionisers—will also persist.
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