Origen’s plant-based filters take air purification to a new level
Words Tess van Straaten
Photography Lia Crowe
Serial entrepreneur Andrew Crawford is passionate about plants, but the origin of his latest venture—Origen Air—came after an unlikely discovery.
“Origen Air was born out of an unfortunate truth,” explains Andrew, Origen’s co-founder and chief development officer. “I’d started a living-wall company in Victoria with the intention of delivering the cleanest, greenest and most stunning plant-based installations for my clients. Over the years we completed some great projects, but kind of like when you buy a puppy for your kids and you’re initially the hero, within a few months, you start to become the only person that wants to take care of the dog.”
Andrew says the same thing happened with the living walls—after all the excitement wore off, it was just a living thing on the wall that nobody wanted to take care of.
“It was this emergent pain point that drove my desire to develop a more sustainable business model that delivered more than just green aesthetics,” Andrew says.
Determined to make things healthier and happier indoors using plants, Andrew started digging into scientific research data hoping to prove his belief about the restorative power of plants.
“I was raised by an accountant, so numbers need to talk, and I quickly learned that a normal plant growing inside a pot doesn’t really do much of anything for improving the overall air quality,” he says.
But that disappointing discovery quickly led Andrew to the University of Washington (UW), where Dr. Stuart Strand had developed a tropical houseplant that had been scientifically proven to remove man-made toxins from indoor air. Calling it a “watershed moment,” Andrew contacted Dr. Strand to see if he could secure the distribution rights for the so-called “magic plants” capable of removing airborne toxins 80,000 times smaller than the best HEPA filters.
“At that point, I realized I needed to get very serious, very quickly, on a level that I was not qualified for,” says the 45-year-old father of two. “Luckily, I‘d already found my soulmate and life partner, Susan, and I asked her if she wanted to launch a cleantech company with me.”
Origen co-founder and CEO Susan Blanchet picks up the story here, saying, “I was still practicing as legal counsel for the Province of BC, although I have always been very into environmental causes. I have a degree in environmental studies and I’d done a lot of contaminated site litigation, but over the years, I just found I wasn’t doing the things that I loved, and the pursuit of litigation wasn’t the fastest way to make a change.”
An expert at negotiating legal contracts, and born with an entrepreneurial spirit of her own, Susan was able to obtain the rights to UW’s genetically-modified plants and Origen Air—which uses the plants for indoor air purification—was founded in 2019.
It didn’t take long for Susan to leave her secure government job to become the CEO and co-founder of the company. But a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“COVID slammed us, yet it also put us on a different path,” recalls the 48-year-old mother of three. “At the time, we had no intention of building the units ourselves. But we realized there was no way we could build them with someone else quickly enough, so we said to our engineers, ‘Just build it!’ and we did—in our 1,500-square-foot office!”
“I think the pandemic really galvanized us as a company and escalated our ‘why?’” Andrew adds. “The reason we left all of our offices and ran home was that a significant airborne threat was now present in our shared airspaces. This invisible virus suddenly forced the world to scrutinize the health and safety of our indoor environments.”
Origen’s original team of two has now grown to 16 and the company has installed around 20 units—from KPMG in Vancouver and CHEK Media and the Bay Centre in Victoria to office buildings in Toronto. Production is ramping up and 200 units are under construction now, with another 200 planned for Ontario early next year.
“We’re breathing life back into buildings. We want to welcome people back to their offices and collaborative workspaces,” Andrew says. “You breathe 18,000 litres of air every single day. If the air you inhale isn’t good, it’s going to have a compounding effect on your health.”
Looking toward the future, Origen Air is planning the development of a smaller, living air purification unit for the home market. The current flagship model, known as The Pinnacle, has been designed, built and priced to serve larger commercial and institutional spaces.
“Our systems represent the divine intersection of biotech, engineering and modern design. It is as alive as the people it protects,” says Susan.
“On the tech start-up road, it was a steep uphill climb,” she adds. “Everything I applied for was a ‘no,’ and there were a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of tough decisions. We had to stay afloat on small grants, subsidies and our personal bank accounts. Maybe my mistake was thinking it would move faster, but I kept holding strong and making sure we had a plan to stay alive.”
“Giving while living” is an important motto to the couple. They have mandated for every 10 units that a single company buys, one brand new Pinnacle unit will be donated to a non-profit such as Ronald McDonald House or Habitat for Humanity. And, in true entrepreneurial fashion, they also have another moon-shot goal on their to-do list.
“We’re working over the next 12 to 18 months to produce a building integrated version. This nature-based solution, dubbed The Canopy, will take existing green-roof technology and amplify both health and energy efficiency benefits by an exponential margin for building owners and occupants. If you imagine a gigantic greenhouse on top of a building filled with tropical plants, you get the basic idea behind this energy efficiency-driven project.
“I am inspired by a future vision of flying into a city, looking down at the urban metropolis below and seeing our lush green canopies capping the tops of buildings. It’s a grand vision, and one that keeps me inspired and thrilled to be a part of this company,” Andrew says.
“Nature always wins,” he smiles.
撰文: Tess van Straaten
攝影: Lia Crowe
連續創業家 Andrew Crawford 對植物充滿熱情，但他最新項目— Origen Air 卻源於一個令人失望的發現。
“Origen Air 誕生於一個不幸的事實，” Origen 的聯合創始人兼首席開發官 Andrew 解釋說。“我在維多利亞創辦一家活體墻(living wall )公司，希望為客戶提供一個基於植物，最清潔、最綠色和最令人驚嘆的裝置。幾年閒，我們完成一些很棒的項目，但有點像你為孩子買了一隻小狗，最初你是英雄，但過了幾個月，你開始成為這隻狗的唯一照看人。”
這一令人失望的發現很快將 Andrew 引向了華盛頓大學。在那裡，Stuart Strand 博士開發一種熱帶室內植物，經科學證明，能去除室內空氣中的人造毒素。Andrew 稱這是一個 “分水嶺” ，他聯繫了 Strand博士，看看是否可以獲得這個所謂 “神奇植物 “的銷售權，這種植物可以去除比最好的過濾網 HEPA 還要小八萬倍的空氣中毒素。
“在這一點上，我意識到在這個并不熟悉的領域上，我需要非常投入，且行動要快，” 這位 45 歲、兩個孩子的父親說。“幸運的是，我已經找到了我的靈魂伴侶和生活夥伴 Susan，我問她是否願意和我一起創辦一家潔净技術公司。”
Origen 公司的聯合創始人兼首席執行官 Susan Blanchet 在這裡接過話茬說：“我當時仍是一名卑詩省執業法律顧問，儘管我一直非常關注環境。我有一個環境研究的學位，做了很多污染場地的訴訟，但多年來發現並沒有做自己喜歡的事情，而通過訴訟並不是做出改變的最快方式。”
Susan 是法律合同談判的專家，且天生具有獨立的創業精神。她成功獲得華盛頓大學的轉基因植物的權利，Origen Air 公司也於 2019 年成立，將植物用於室內空氣淨化。
“疫情對我們帶來重創，然而也迫使我們走上另一條道路，”這位 48 歲的、三個孩子的母親回憶道。“當時，我們並不打算自己建造這些設備。但我們意識到，不可能和別人一起快速地建造，所以對我們的工程師說，‘就這麽做了！’於是我們在只有 1500 平方呎的辦公室内建造完成！”
“作爲一個公司，我認為疫情反而激發了我們的熱情，並强化了建造它的初衷？” Andrew 補充說。“我們離開辦公室並跑回家的原因是，一個由空氣傳播的嚴重威脅出現於我們的共同空間。這種無形的病毒突然迫使全世界檢查我們室內環境的健康和安全。”
最初，Origen 只有兩人的團隊現已發展到 16 人，公司已經安裝了大約 20 台設備——從溫哥華的 KPMG 和維多利亞的媒體 CHEK 和 Bay Centre， 到多倫多的辦公大樓。現在 200 台設備正在建設中，明年初計劃在安省再建 200 台。
“我們正在為建築物重新注入活力。希望歡迎人們回到他們的辦公室和具有協作精神的工作空間，”Andrew 說。“你每天都要呼吸 18,000 升空氣。如果吸入的空氣不好，將對你的健康產生復合效應。”
目前，旗艦機型稱為 The Pinnacle，其設計、製造和價格都是為了服務於大型商業和機構。 展望未來，Origen Air 計劃為家庭市場開發一種更小的生活空氣淨化裝置。
“一邊生活一邊奉獻”是這對夫婦的一個重要座右銘。他們規定，每當有一家公司購買 10 個單元，他們就會將一個全新的 Pinnacle 捐贈給非營利組織，比如麥當勞叔叔之家（Ronald McDonald House）或人類家園（Habitat for Humanity）。而且，他們還計劃展開一個雄心勃勃的項目。
“我們正努力在未來 12 到 18 個月內生產一個建築整合版本。這種基於自然的解決方案，稱之為天幕（The Canopy），將採用現有的綠色屋頂技術，為建築物帶來更大的健康和能源效益。想像一下，在建築物頂部有一個巨大的溫室，充滿熱帶植物，你就會明白這個以能源效率為導向的項目背後的基本想法。”