M.OYUNGEREL: Not finding air filters inspired me to make biodegradable one, myself

M.OYUNGEREL: Not finding air filters inspired me to make biodegradable one, myself

                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Suniko Bazargarid

I interviewed a co-founder of Airee Felt Company, M.Oyungerel. Airee is a domestically produced air purifier with a patented filter made of wool. AireeTM offers the world an organic, biodegradable alternative to synthetic filters. 80 percent of air pollutants from combustion are electrically charged. Sheep wool has electromagnetic properties which makes it an excellent filter against air pollution. M.Oyungerel has entered many international and domestic competitions with her start-up, winning Falling Walls Mongolia 2021, Youth Ecopreneur, and Agripreneur 2023. She is a UN Youth Delegate for Mongolia, and we had a discussion about her company and recent achievements.

Can you explain more about what Airee is and how it works?

Airee is a startup that makes biodegradable air filters from Mongolian sheep wool. Our team developed a patented technology to filter out harmful air pollutants using bio-fibers such as sheep wool.

People always ask, why sheep wool? People have mixed feelings about it. Some people think it smells, some people think it makes sense because they’ve seen felt collect soot. The short answer is wool is pretty good at filtering gas. A slightly longer answer is that wool is known to adeptly filter volatile organic compounds, which are common pollutants in indoor air. You
can think of paint, building/furniture varnishes, room deodorizers, and if you live closer to the road, car exhaust and other combustion pollutants. We tweaked its properties such that it filters fine particulate matter, without sacrificing its ability to let air in and out easily. We piloted using air purifier devices and because we saw that it works, we’re now working to scale and become a filter material manufacturer.

We all know air pollution is a dire issue in Mongolia, especially in Ulaanbaatar. What caused you to become interested in this, and what prompted you to become an entrepreneur?

We have the coldest capital city in the world, so people burn coal to stay warm. It’s most akin to London air pollution because most other air pollution problems around the world are related primarily to cars, power plants, or cooking stoves. 2015 studies show that ger district is responsible for 80 percent of the air pollution. I spent some childhood years in the ger district myself, and I’m young enough to not know a winter when there was no air pollution.

Immediately after I graduated from high school, I was snowboarding from atop a hill, and I “discovered” air pollution. I thought the coal mine next to the city had exploded, and my dad told me it was the city that we lived in 24/7. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I started learning more about it and at the time, the Clean Air Fund that was publicly run had a corruption case. I was frustrated and thought that a lot of “somebodies” had to do a lot of “somethings” about it. So, I enrolled into an environmental science major and started learning about it. When I first started out in 2016, I thought people would act more and protect themselves from air pollution if only they knew how bad air pollution was. So together with the admins of Mongolia Live Facebook page, we created a nonprofit called Breathe Mongolia. The nonprofit aimed to increase public awareness about air pollution, teach people how to protect themselves from it, and ways they could contribute, and act as a policy watch dog for decisions being made by the government.

The reason I wanted to do it was because at that time, the narrative was that the government wasn’t doing anything, and the public was the victim. It is, in some sense, true, but I didn’t like this narrative because it removed agency from individuals. It makes the problem so big that people feel like any individual action is just a drop in the bucket. So, we demonstrated, in New York, in California, and in Ulaanbaatar, and tried to educate people with a one-stop shop for air pollution knowledge. But I realized that although people wanted to do something about it, they didn’t have the financial means to.

Shortly after I graduated from the university, I started working for the Mongolian Sustainable Finance Association where we piloted Mongolia’s first sector-wide energy efficiency mortgages in the ger district. It was originally an initiative that started in 2013 where financial institutions were conducting environmental and social risk management systems, to ensure businesses complied. Later, when I joined, we had become an organization and the paradigm had started moving beyond compliance into green additionality. There, I was privileged to work with extremely competent and caring people who were attempting to establish a green impact fund of 50 million USD to finance energy-efficiency, in industries and in the ger district to build new homes or retrofit existing ones. This meant that we worked on designing green loans and worked with the government to provide incentives for people to choose green products. I had been trying to tackle the source of the problem and work efficiently, working on lack of accessibility to finance and infrastructure problems.

But at the same time, people were getting sick, especially pregnant women and young children. Miscarriages are 3.5 times more likely to happen during polluted seasons (UNICEF Mongolia, 2018) and I think almost everybody knows somebody close to
them who has had miscarriage/lung cancer/pneumonia during the polluted season. We bought air purifiers, but we couldn’t find replacement filters. They didn’t sell them. If they did sell them, they would cost 200 USD per filter for some models, which is insane. Breathing clean air shouldn’t be this expensive. So, in 2021, when my co-founder approached me with a project idea to develop algae oxygen generators I said yes, and we participated in the competition called Greenpreneurs by GGGI. By the end of the year, when the competition ended our team decided to continue it and make it into a business and we have been studying about sheep wool, so that’s how we started.

Currently, more and more people are choosing to live abroad instead of staying and helping the development of Mongolia. How do you feel about them? What do you see is stopping them from staying? Why are you still here?

It’s impossible to blame them. Some people say they’re being selfish, but you can’t call somebody selfish for deciding to prioritize their personal health.

You know who’s objectively selfish? It’s the people who were proven of embezzlement but go unpunished. It’s so disrespectful when they make poor decisions and abuse our hard-earned tax money. When I used to work for the Mongolian Sustainable
Finance Association, to establish the green revolving fund, we asked for 18 million USD from the government, and they haven’t finalized it. Yet, they decided to “experiment with improved coal” for 50 million USD, or the bus scandal. I’m trying to work to improve the lives of others, not pay for a politician’s son’s Ferrari. But in reality, that’s what I’m doing. And if I don’t make this decision to stay and “work for my country”, I’m selfish? This narrative needs to change.

One thing that prevents me from leaving is the fact that I haven’t contributed much to education yet. My biggest fear is this. People are products of their time, and we can understand why the generation in power right now acts this way. But I want to
believe that products from our time, these kids, are well educated and that the future we’re shaping, is filled with people who have agency and not tethered to welfare, and for that to happen, we need to invest more in our youth and adult education systems.

What are people’s comments on your products?

We’ve sold 300 air purifiers with wool filters over the last year and people are especially noting how well it filters odors. When people cook, or when they have car exhaust from opening windows, that’s what wool filters are great at filtering. Almost 80 percent of our purifiers have been sold to pregnant women and families with children under three years of age. It’s when children’s lungs are still developing, so we provided a 20 percent discount to this demographic that needs purifiers the most. The fact that we won’t run out of filters and can provide cheap replacement filters is something our customers also love.

What is the legal environment to develop products such as Airee? Does the government show any sort of support to entrepreneurs such as yourself?

In the last two years, the legal environment has improved significantly, so Airee is lucky in some ways. The government has clarified the regulation on how to define and be registered legally as a “startup”, the legal status of coworking spaces, introduced VAT and customs tax levies and exemptions for equipment and raw materials of “innovation projects”, and has been organizing startup competitions with grant funding. We’re able to benefit from a discounted office space thanks to Innovation Hub, the municipality backed coworking space. All of these are so new and I’m so happy the government set up this legal framework to promote entrepreneurship. Mongolia is not a value creating economy and the system almost discourages it. I hope these initial support mechanisms encourage other businesses and we can shape a future system that rewards value creation.

I know that these efforts have been ongoing since I was in university. So, I’m really thankful for the people in this ecosystem who have worked to develop it, as well as the creators and the startup owners who come before us and set a good precedent. I’m really inspired by their determination. It’s equally important for people to get the opportunity and open doors but keep them open for the next person and future generations.

What have been the biggest challenges you faced to develop your products and extend the market further?

We faced many internal and external challenges. When we first ordered our air purifier device, two weeks later the Chinese border closed. So, we had our money locked for one whole year and couldn’t pilot as we wanted to. That’s the first biggest challenge. Second, investment is always a big challenge, because Mongolia has a very small market and the number of investors who are experienced, and investing are relatively few. Investors who are well equipped or who have experience with physical products, such as manufacturing, are very hard to find. These are all issues that startups generally face but it’s a bit harder because, firstly it’s hard to find investors, and secondly, it’s hard to scale into a very small market. That is a big market challenge.

You also won the Youth Ecopreneur awards from the International Trade Center, and 5,000 USD. What do you plan to do with it?

We were able to win the Youth Ecopreneur awards during the World Expert Development Forum held in Ulaanbaatar city in June. It hasn’t only been 5000 USD; they gave us a pro bono legal service from a multinational law firm called Sidley Austin. We are enrolled into the Google startups for sustainable development program, and we have the right to talk to people
from the World Intellectual Property Office. In addition, the International Trade Center has been promoting us in the media extensively. So, the fact that I was at the UN and speaking at two events was all thanks to the International Trade Center. We were lucky to have won it and I’m glad it was organized in Mongolia. Also the YE! Community is very supportive and very loving, which is great.

You also recently attended the Clinton Global Initiative and UN SDG Summit. Can you tell more about it?

Last year, we participated in a six-month incubation program called Unleash. It’s a community of SDG and impact driven companies. When we enrolled there, we got accepted into stage three and we went to an in-person competition in Mysuru, India. We were exposed to a lot of mentors and experts in the fields of fundraising, global supply chains, product development, storytelling, and other things. One of the mentors we got acquainted with referred us to the Clinton Global Initiative to participate in their Greenhouse event. The greenhouse event convened 30 businesses in three tracks. The three tracks were climate resilience, inclusive economic development, and health equity. Out of 200 who were referred by the Clinton Foundation community to apply to this event, 30 were chosen, including us. So, these people were competing for 25,000 USD and an exposure to the Clinton Foundation network. It just goes to show how much all these international startup competitions and events help you and it was an amazing event to be at and participate in. This year’s theme was Keep Going.

I did two events at the UN. First, I was there for SDG Action Weekend which happens before the SDG Summit. At the Action Weekend, I was on a panel that was focused on closing the financing gap for women and missionaries. Second, I was at the Good Trade Summit, where I was privileged enough to sit next to the US Department of State chief global partnerships officer and have him interview us and ask him questions as well. During the Action Weekend, I was interviewed, and they ended up posting my interview on the beginning launch day of the SDG Summit, where a lot of like country leaders were. So, it’s almost like it was orchestrated by the International Trade Center.

Lastly, what are your future plans?

We are now in the process of setting up a factory to manufacture 100-percent biodegradable air filters. We’re producing that filter material for filter manufacturers who will then take it into different shapes and fitted for various applications. We want to export and explore beyond the wool only as a raw material. As for me, I will continue to spread more climate education and try to contribute to education more in general.

Amarjargal Munkhbat