Meet the company solving the UK’s air pollution issues during COVID-19

Covid-19 News | Interview

Business Leader recently spoke to Freddie Talberg, CEO of EMSOL, to discuss how his firm is tackling the UK’s air pollution problems during the coronavirus pandemic.

Can you tell us a little about your own career path so far, leading up to your role in co-founding EMSOL?

I have been an entrepreneur for a long time now, and have owned my own tech companies for over 20 years. Having studied electrical engineering at University, it felt natural that my career was kick-started at BT. After a few years there, I started my own Telecoms company, which was, as strange as it may seem, eventually acquired by BT.

During the mid-90s in Telecoms, I felt that mapping was a truly growing sector and sensed that things were quickly evolving. I wanted to be involved – so I set to work and as a result, I mapped the whole of London and produced my first map for all the motorbike parking in the city – a personal project which ended up selling over 10,000 copies.

After that, I took my mapping knowledge into the emerging Smart Cities sector. This was at a time before Google Maps and I helped to build moving maps onto a page – a project I did for Earl’s Court. Alongside this, I worked on complex mapping for the Olympic Games and worked in partnership with the government to map out specialised road maps for the disability sector.

In addition to the above, I also created a navigation system for trucks which helped them to take alternative routes and cut down the number of left turns they had to take. This was due to the amount of cyclist collisions which were happening as a result of left turns. Innovation can make a difference – this is something I learned throughout my career and eventually led me to founding EMSOL.

EMSOL to me is a continuation of my mapping journey – only this time I am laying the foundations for mapping our environment in the UK. We started EMSOL in 2017 after seeing the convergence of critical industry drivers through smarter approaches for urban areas focusing on data-led initiatives. I knew that this would enable EMSOL to develop a SaaS platform that empowered organisations to move from simply monitoring air quality, to improving it by delivering targeted, actionable emissions breach evidence to compliance teams and drive emissions fixes with their fleets, and subcontractors.

You have a strong entrepreneurial background in different ventures. EMSOL though is not just a commercial project – it is a force for good too. How important is this to you?

My mission has always been to continue to be a serial entrepreneur, but EMSOL is unique as it has really given us the chance to change people’s lives every day and in the long run, equipping companies with all the necessary data to address their emissions challenges.

It is personally very satisfying to play a role in giving corporations innovative tools to empower them to achieve their aggressive emissions targets. For me, this type of entrepreneurship and innovation is all about how we can use our ideas to help improve people’s lives and to drive new standards to those that have the power to change our systems.

I am really invested in working with the good guys committed to driving change –  such as some of the city regions we are already working with including Croydon City Council, TfL and our recent Cross River Partnership.

EMSOL as a force for good is about knowing that we can transform transport pollution really rapidly, helping to improve the environment around us.

Can you give us an overview of EMSOL’s activities and some of its successes to date?

EMSOL is an air quality action business. We have developed and brought to market new technology that empowers organisations to move from simply monitoring air quality to taking action on improving the air quality of their local environment. The EMSOL software is the first time that companies and sites can clearly identify vehicles and assets breaching their pollution policies and hold them accountable.

Our mission is that every community has a clean, safe and healthy local environment where air quality is high and noise pollution is minimal. Our technology simplifies compliance making it easier for local authorities to achieve environmental targets. As a result, they are able to pinpoint the emission problem at the moment it becomes a problem and take specific steps to improve air quality.

At EMSOL, we are aiming to be more innovation-led than regulation led. Our product moves beyond measuring air quality, and helps improve air quality and predict tomorrow’s pollution levels. With enough data our solution can tell what the pollution levels will be in a specific area at a specific time in the near future.

For example, from our data, we know that the time to send the message to turn on pollution dispersal fans in an enclosed train station based on the actual location and time of the train coming into the station.

The business has evolved rapidly and has since grown to service Croydon Council, TfL, the London School of Economics, Birmingham New Street rail station, EastWestRail, Cross River Partnership, Balfour Beatty, Veolia, Network Rail, Mace and Hanson to name a few.

What was the ambition for EMSOL when you created the company, and how far along that journey is the company?

The mission of the business was that in 20 years’ time, most buildings will have some intelligent data about the building and that most buildings taking part in the service delivery industry will be connected in some way. If you can have a connected fleet connected to the building then you can relay this information to the companies to decide when you want to avoid a mass influx of emissions.

My passion to solve the pollution problem, led me to understand a lot more about diesel engines and the way they work. EMSOL started off as what can I take from the engines, but then understanding that we can actually deploy sensors to monitor emissions helped us to find a direct solution

We are an early stage, venture-funded technology start-up and industry challenger. We’re just coming out of our product trial phase and beginning to drive sales. We have 10 trial sites across construction, rail and waste management and those sites are shifting from trial to annual contracts. We’re focusing our small team on the highest demand sectors, but our solution has natural product-market fit in many sectors including construction, rail, hospitality, retail, supply chain and ports to name a few.

The way I see things is that we can tell organisations exactly what they can do to achieve their goals to improve the environment and reduce emissions. Our key thing is to keep evolving and making sure we get our model right to be able to be predictive and give as much tailored data as possible.

Why is EMSOL’s role important in changing behaviours? What are the risks which come with inaction?

EMSOL is an excellent solution for any organisation trying to hit aggressive environmental targets imposed by the government or by themselves. This is because EMSOL enables organisations to immediately begin taking specific, targeted action every day to improve air quality. This is a contrast from expensive, long range investments or simply monitoring air quality with no ability to drive action.

The risks of inaction are simple – increased levels of emissions increase pollution, reduce air quality and damage lungs. Poor air quality is sadly the cause of approximately 8.8 million premature deaths around the world. This is particularly relevant with COVID-19 – poor lung health from pollution enables viruses to more easily take hold. Pollution also slows lung recovery from viral infections and COVID-19 badly damages lungs. We’re working with two organizations to ensure that their site air quality is constantly improved for their passengers and customers.

What needs to change? Behaviour? Technology? Ambitions? Or all of these things?

I think all of these things as they are interlinked. We are very pro-growth and pro-development and we think it’s possible to grow rapidly and take actions every day to improve the environment. These aren’t mutually exclusive, but organizations need to take targeted actions every day and not wait for 2030, 2040 or 2050. Changing behaviour needs to happen first as people become more motivated to aggressively hit their net zero emissions targets. A lot of the technology is now out there and EMSOL’s platform offers a direct way to take targeted action to improve air quality. 

How is the coronavirus impacting behaviours in a positive way from an environmental viewpoint?

For example, looking around London so far, you can see the impact of full-scale lockdown just a few days since it was announced. There has been almost no traffic on the streets, and the number of people entering the city centre has significantly reduced.

Instantly, this is reducing the public’s exposure to harmful particulates and other sources of air pollution, as it is in New York, where lockdown measures were implemented last week; early research shows carbon monoxide emissions down 50% on this time last year.

These patterns were also seen in China and Italy respectively and can be drawn as positives for air quality – we must however, think of innovative ways to continue our reduction in emissions.

In measurable terms, what is the environmental result of this changed behaviour?

For example in China, research suggests that a 25% drop in energy usage in the country could see a 1% decline in its carbon emissions by the end of the year. These are figures that will see a similar trajectory in the UK, with reports already seeing an improvement in our air quality as traffic around the country is back to levels last seen in the 1950s. Wider lockdown measures may have also averted a serious smog at the end of last month.

A new study in Italy, Environmental Pollution, found that air pollution can be linked to a weakened ability to fight coronavirus. For example, Lombardi in Italy is one of the regions most affected by coronavirus in the country and also happens to be one of the most polluted parts of Europe, with a coronavirus death rate of 12.5% in comparison to only 4.5% in the rest of the country.

This direct correlation shows that in parts of the world where air quality is prioritised, people have a better chance of surviving the virus – something we should not take for granted an act on consistently.

If a full shutdown follows, as seems likely, and lasts for perhaps three months – how much of an environmental benefit would result?

As a shutdown is in full swing, we can expect to see similar patterns to other countries, especially in major cities like London where many of the emissions come from public transport and the number of vehicles on the road at one time.

We will see a pretty instant increase in air quality as more people spend time indoors and therefore less time in vehicles, offices or in factories. These effects may resonate with the results seen in Italy’s shutdown, as for the first time in decades, Venice canals were seen to be gushing with clear water as a result of the reduction in traffic pollution.

In three months, the benefits to our health and wellbeing can only increase.

Firms are being forced into finding new ways of operating – are there emergency measures now being implemented which you hope and believe might lead to long-term behavioural change?

Absolutely, we have seen a massive increase in companies that have encouraged their staff to work from home, such measures should continue to be encouraged even once we are on the other side of the pandemic as it reduces the amount of circulation on the roads. We also fully expect that commuting by car, rail, air and bus will ramp right back up and we are advocates of getting the UK back to work. We’re also advocating getting the UK back to work in a way that is sustainable and ensures that air quality remains high so that UK citizens can enjoy strong respiratory health and recover more rapidly if they have lung damage from COVID-19. The side benefit of this is that good air quality delivers so many other benefits for personal health and for the environment.

What would be your key piece of advice for businesses looking to modify their environmental impact?

You don’t have to slow growth or development to improve air quality. EMSOL is an advocate of growth and development. While businesses are growing and developing, technology can be used to help companies track their emissions levels and track the emitters and take targeted action to improve air quality. EMSOL for example, provides businesses with real-time, specific evidence about emissions breaches delivered straight to their desktop or mobile. So, they can pinpoint the problem the moment it becomes a problem, and take specific steps to improve air quality.

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