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Filters Of The Future: These Startups Say The Answer To Air Pollution Can Fit In Your Nose

Filters Of The Future: These Startups Say The Answer To Air Pollution Can Fit In Your Nose

Nov 29, 2021 Johnny Fayad

By Janice Bitters Turi

Thomas Carence from Kansas City, Missouri, set out to improve a cure for hay fever in 1901 by connecting two gauze-filled cylinders that fit inside the allergy sufferer’s nose, a solution he patented. Little did he know, he was more than 100 years ahead of his time.

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Although Carence’s solution appears to be among the earliest efforts to claim the idea of in-nose air filters, more followed. But those products, if they ever moved to an iteration beyond patent office filings, never really made it to the mainstream. 

That may change as a small but growing cohort of startup founders aim to commercialize wearable and individualized products to battle against growing air pollution, allergens and, to some degree, even airborne diseases like COVID-19. 

When those founders talk about the future, they see a not-too-distant reality where the average consumer might breathe in a solution that can help protect the lungs as part of their morning routine. In this version of the future, people not only pat their pockets for their keys and wallet, but also grab their in-nose air filters before walking out the door.  

“I expect 10 years from now people will be hydrating their airways with the meticulousness and the care that they wash their hands or brush their teeth,” said David Edwards, a Harvard University professor and founder of FEND, which makes a device that mists moisture and minerals to help clean and hydrate air passages. “It’s all a matter of data; there’s no disease that is more deadly today and on the rise than respiratory disease.” 

Boston-based FEND is distinct from many of the other personal air filtration products hitting the market because one doesn’t wear it; they breathe it. The water, salt and calcium in the solution aim to boost the air filtration system already in our bodies, promising to stop a portion of pollution, allergens and germs in the upper airways, keeping them from reaching the lungs or being spat back out into the world, Edwards said.  

Boston-based FEND sells a portable devise that mists a solution of water, salt and calcium to hydrate airways and help the body filter pollution, germs and particles more effectively. Photo courtesy of FEND.

The product builds on Edwards’ work in the early 2000s, when the fear of anthrax arriving in American mailboxes was at an all-time high. The U.S. government, aware of his research on diabetes medication that could be inhaled, enlisted Edwards’ expertise to help mitigate the danger of a new threat. 

Edwards found that a good portion of the bad things in the air—from pollution to allergens and even anthrax—could be caught before reaching the lungs if our air passages get a little extra TLC with moisture and minerals. But as the threat of anthrax faded into the background, so too, did his work on the project. 

The COVID-19 pandemic seemed an obvious time to bring the research back, even if FEND’s long-term goal didn’t revolve around a single virus, he said. The company has raised $18 million in venture funding and is planning a Series A round next year, Edwards said. 

Those that use the product say it helps with allergies, sleeping better and reducing asthma symptoms, though Edwards is working on more studies to collect data that may help validate those observations, he said. 

“If you look at people who bought FEND to date, I think it’s fair to say they mostly bought FEND out of fear of COVID,” Edwards said. “But they mostly use FEND because it’s helping them breathe better.” 

Breathing easy

As Carence’s patent filing shows, worries about the air we breathe aren’t new. 

European doctors in the 17th century wore beaked masks to avoid the plague. Americans invented devices in the 1800s to help firefighters filter smoke out of the air and the first gas mask was patented in 1849. Later, air filters became standard in homes and offices to sift out dust and dander that collects indoors. Today, an endless variety of paper and cloth masks promise to help protect us from COVID-19. 

While the founders behind the budding industry of individualized air filtration claim their products could help slow transmission of the coronavirus by blocking droplets from entering the nose, or, in the case of FEND, ensuring those virus particles stay caught in the throat rather than splattering back out into the world, none said they want to replace masks that cover the nose and mouth. 

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