NEW DELHI -- The air pollution in New Delhi is so severe that even nonsmokers living here inhale the equivalent of 50 cigarettes on an extreme day, turning the city of 25 million into what a local political leader describes as "a gas chamber."
With poisonous smog blanketing the city and choking New Delhi's residents day after day since November, inhabitants of India's capital are increasingly looking for ways to shield themselves from the harmful effects of worsening levels of pollution.
Prateek Sharma believes he has a solution for this health crisis.
The 25-year-old chief executive of startup Nanoclean Global says his company has developed a nasal filter capable of restricting the entry of harmful particles into the body -- at a cost of just 10 rupees (about 16 cents) each.
"We have built this very unique [product] using nanotechnology," Sharma told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview.
The product, marketed and sold under the brand name Nasofilters, is placed directly into a user's nasal passageway and the company claims it has a 95% efficiency rate of blocking PM2.5 -- the most prominent pollutant in the city's toxic air with a diameter equal to or smaller than 2.5 microns that can lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory and heart ailments. Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for a mixture of tiny particles and liquid droplets found in the air.
Sharma said his filter is different from other anti-pollution products -- generally facemasks using the mechanism of depth filtration, in which there are multiple layers of filters.
When a particle touches the external periphery of the masks, it may penetrate inside and collect somewhere inside a filter layer. "After a few days you actually have to dispose it off -- despite having bought it for hundreds of rupees -- because it chokes," he said.
The startup began life at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi in 2015, the same year that Sharma graduated from the school. Sharma, who studied civil engineering at IIT, and two other alumni of the institute -- Tushar Vyas and Jatin Kewlani -- co-founded the company, along with support from some faculty members. It also has major financial backing from the Indian government through grants from the Department of Science and Technology and Department of Biotechnology. The company has also secured investment from a pool of IIT alumni. Collectively, the company has raised nearly $400,000, both in the form of government grants and investment from IIT alumni, Sharma said.
Nanoclean, which has a staff of 15 and was incorporated in February 2017, has not disclosed its revenue.
The company, which received the Indian government-sponsored Startups National Award 2017 in May, has three patents pending in India -- in product, technology and design -- and it has also filed an international patent cooperation treaty.
Addressing the IIT Delhi's convocation ceremony on Nov. 4, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said he was happy to note that researchers at the institute have invented and developed products that have contributed to the well-being of fellow citizens and cited the nasal filter made by Sharma and his team as one of the examples. "Nanofilters developed by IIT Delhi protect us from ever-growing air pollution and cost only 10 rupees."
That same month, Dharmendra Pradhan, the minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas and the minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, referring to Nanoclean's chief executive, tweeted, "This is how small innovations can solve problems affecting millions of people. My best wishes to him."
Sharma said that Nasofilters uses what he describes as surface filtration technology. "When you are breathing out, this filter is auto-cleaning itself," he said. "There is a 2-D layer of nanofiber on the exterior side of this filter, thus the particle is not penetrating inside."
The thickness of threads of a fabric enters nano range when reduced by 100 times. "We are using a biodegradable polymer, and are right now in the range of 200 nano meters with which we can restrict the entry of PM2.5 and bacteria," Sharma said. "If we manage to reduce the thickness of the polymer beyond 200 nano meters, we will be able to restrict viruses even."
The biodegradable disposable nasal filter gives negligible breathing resistance, and is being marketed to consumers for its low cost.
The raw material, including base fabric and polymer, is very inexpensive when bought in bulk, Sharma said. "The 10-rupee [price tag] includes all our cost -- raw material, manufacturing, marketing, retail cuts and profit. Though the profit depends on orders, we can say it is [roughly] 15-20%," he said.
"Pollution is [harmful] for everyone," Sharma said. "This solution is affordable, effective and comfortable," he said, adding that the company aimed to produce an aesthetically pleasing filter, too, by making it less visible from a distance and not covering as much of the face as masks.
The company began selling Nasofilters online this month, although some companies, schools and restaurants in New Delhi -- which it declined to identify -- had already been ordering the product in bulk.
While the company's initial market is New Delhi, millions of people in other cities across India face a similar air pollution problem. A Greenpeace India report in January 2017 said more than a million deaths in the country every year could be attributed to poor air quality.
"[The] deadly air pollution is not a problem restricted to Delhi [and regions surrounding it] or even to India's metros," the report said. "It is a national problem that is killing 1.2 million Indians every year and costing the economy an estimated 3% of [gross domestic product]."
India is home to half of the world's 20 most polluted cities, the World Health Organization said in a 2016 report.
Based on the annual average concentration of PM2.5 in 3,000 cities in more than 100 countries, Delhi was No. 11, with a reading of 122 micrograms per cubic meter, the WHO said. That is down from the No. 1 spot in 2014, when it stood at 153 micrograms per cubic meter. The annual mean recommended by the WHO is 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
As pollution levels spiked in New Delhi this past November -- with some parts of the city recording an air-quality index reading of 999 micrograms per cubic meter (beyond which monitors cannot measure), which is equal to smoking about 50 cigarettes a day -- the city's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, said the city had "become a gas chamber."
In their bid to combat pollution, city residents have been using facemasks costing as little as 30 rupees -- with hardly any protection against most of the pollutants -- and as much as 1,800 rupees.
"Our product is first of its kind in terms of affordability," Sharma said. One small package of Nasofilters contains 10 patches at 10 rupees each. A single patch can last eight to 10 hours when air quality is very poor.
Comparing his nasal filter with anti-pollution masks of the same efficiency costing up to 1,800 rupees, Sharma said these expensive solutions are effective at the most for 100 hours.
Nanoclean was among the top 25 technical start-ups in the world selected in the South Korean government-backed K-Startup Grand Challenge 2017, for which more than 1,500 teams from 118 countries applied.
It also was among the 100 finalists -- the only Indian startup on the list -- in the Elevator Pitch Competition 2017, an international start-up event conducted by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp.
Savita Gupta, who runs a pharmacy in New Delhi, said she would like to sell Nasofilters at her store. "Distributors haven't brought this product to us yet, but I am sure it'll trigger interest among consumers once it is available."
Anju Verma, a customer at the store, said a friend of hers with asthma obtained Nasofilters directly from the company and has found it very effective. "I, too, positively look forward to using it [to fight the pollution]," she said.
Sonakshi Sharma, a 19-year-old college student who is not related to Prateek Sharma, said she uses Nasofilters when pollution in New Delhi spikes to severe levels and hampers her breathing. "It's easy to use, very comfortable and you actually feel you are inhaling fresh air," she said.
But Nanoclean is facing a market with established competitors, including Reckitt Benckiser Group's Dettol SiTi Shield Protect+ and Calyfon Group's Vogmask, and experts have raised questions over its affordability.
"Though it costs only 10 rupees, how many people or families in India -- a country where hundreds of millions live in poverty -- would be able to afford it all 365 days a year?" said Sunil Dahiya, the Greenpeace India senior campaigner for climate and energy, in an interview.
"As an environmentalist, I would say not only Nasofilters but many other products will come into the picture in coming years and will try to reduce our exposure to pollution, but they are not a permanent solution," Dahiya said. "We need concerted efforts to reduce or remove pollution at the source," he said, highlighting the need for greater use of renewable energy for electricity generation, instead of depending on coal-fired thermal plants.
Nanoclean is now very focused on marketing and distribution, which will play a major role in making the product widely available, said Sharma, the chief executive.
"We are already in talks with Category A consumer health-care companies and negotiating terms with them," he said, referring to top companies but without disclosing names. "We hope to soon get into tie-ups with these firms."
Sharma said the sale of inferior fakes is a problem. "Some [unauthorized] trader may sell a similar looking patch made of a commonly available fabric for as low as [one to two rupees]," adding that a customer would not be able to tell the difference between a nano-fiber filter and a fake one.
Another hurdle for his company, he said, is that some factories have guidelines for workers to wear facemasks, but those guidelines do not cover the efficiency of the product. "They procure very cheap and inefficient facemasks in bulk for a rupee or two. I may also reduce the price by [two to three rupees] for bulk orders but can't drop it that much."
Nanoclean currently is making its filters at a rented facility in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state, with a production capacity of half a million patches a day. It says it recently incorporated a subsidiary in South Korea, from where it will start manufacturing the product by the end of January in order to expand to other Asian countries. "Every country in Asia is the target," Sharma said.
He said the South Korean government is helping the company set up its operations there, with free office space, some funding and other incentives in initial months -- which collectively amounts to $50,000. He did not disclose the production capacity for South Korea but said it would be greater than the existing one in India.
"We don't require funds for the next six months, and after that we will go for [additional] fundraising. We are already in talks with some venture capitalists," Sharma said of the company's fundraising plans.
According to the Lancet Commission on pollution and health published in October, diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths worldwide in 2015 -- 16% of all deaths -- three times more than from AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. Of those nine million deaths, 6.5 million were attributable to air pollution.
Against the grim backdrop of the situation, Nanoclean's nasal filters may prove a boon.
"I don't want the company to be only commercially focused," Sharma said. "Air pollution is a very serious problem, and we are trying to make an impact in your life by making it better and healthier."
Asia's rapid economic rise is making it home to some of the world's most promising startups, with many of these finding success tackling the multitude of problems that have come with this economic development. The Nikkei Asian Review will profile these innovative companies on a regular basis.