Playing it cool in the clean air business

From standalone air purifiers, Plasma Science wants to expand into building ventilation

THE Covid-19 pandemic has put clean air in the limelight, but Plasma Science chief executive Samuel Teh is confident that demand for air purifier technology will persist even afterwards.

"There's already a market awareness that indoor air quality is very important," says Teh, whose startup officially launched its proprietary Trident line of air purifiers earlier this year.

Besides "pandemic-proofing the workplace, households, and also buildings", Teh believes these products have a market among those worried about haze, mould, bacteria, and other viruses.

The company has sold more than 600 units, and now plans to enhance local manufacturing capabilities to support business growth, he tells The Business Times.

"We need to ramp this up so that we can meet the global market needs... When you look into the global market, you're looking at thousands, so we will definitely need to ramp up our (production) capacity."

Conventional air purifiers on the market tend to use high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) technology, trapping tiny particles in fibreglass filters that have to be periodically replaced.

In contrast, Plasma Science's Trident systems pump out positive and negative electrical charges, to disrupt the microscopic structure of germs. Air passing through the machines is also cleaned by both an electric current and ultraviolet radiation.

Plasma Science, which licenses some of its technology from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), was co-founded in February by Teh and two A*Star scientists - Davy Cheong and Ivan Tan, his minority shareholder partners in the venture.

Though the Covid-19 pandemic fuelled mass demand for air purifiers, it also contributed to initial shipping disruptions and high logistics costs for parts from markets like China.

Teh tells BT that the company is now eyeing contract manufacturers closer in the region, in Batam and Johor Baru, while some "critical components" may even have to be made at home.

"We want to start our own factory so that we can produce our own products in Singapore," he says, adding that he hopes to draw investments of about S$5 million to S$8 million.

"We are looking for like-minded investors that can help us to bring our brand (and) products into the global market, and at the same time, scale up our production in Singapore."

Teh has set a target of S$1.5 million in revenue in the first year of business - disclosing that "we already have almost S$600,000" - before scaling up to S$5 million in the second year, and about S$20 million in annual revenue in the next three to five years.

That's as he expects corporate contracts to outstrip consumer product sales and eventually make up 70 per cent of the company's business.

In addition to current unit-based sales or leasing, corporate contracts will include in-building ventilation systems. Naming clinics and childcare centres as potential enterprise clients, he adds that public and private sector players are keen to do proof-of-concept trials in these industries.

Teh knows he has to bring down the price point. Trident's two products are listed online at S$899 and S$1,299. Rival HEPA-based purifiers can go for less than S$150 apiece.

"Our technology is not cheap, that's the problem. But we want to further improve and see what we can value-engineer," says Teh, adding that the goal is "more effective and lower-cost" purifiers.

He expects about one-tenth of revenue to be re-invested in improving the technology, as well as in developing new products such as real-time indoor air quality monitors; portable air purifiers for personal and in-vehicle use; and smaller systems that can be installed in lifts and public restrooms.

Other applications for Plasma Science's technology may even include indoor farming and agri-food storage, with trials now in progress in these areas, says Teh.

The company is also exploring whether its surface and air disinfection technology can be incorporated by lift and escalator companies in their machines.

For now, the company plans to launch more Trident products by next January. While the company's first two models target offices and large rooms, its upcoming round will feature a device for smaller rooms, and a portable unit for personal use.

Plasma Science has also set its sights on markets around the region such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Australia, and is looking for in-market distributors to carry its products there.

Teh acknowledges that customers in some countries may not have the same spending power as those here, but says: "We are still open to regional markets, definitely. In Indonesia, for example, working with a company that specialises in water treatment.

"They manufacture their own water dispensers. They are addressing the same market that we want. So they are already working with the right customers. We will not exclude them... When Indonesian or Malaysian resellers call us, they already have a market in mind."

In fact, foreseeing a need for the company to expand beyond its current 10-man headcount, Teh has plotted out a road map for growth. "We will need to scale up. We have to have our own factory. We definitely need to have a big R&D (research and development) team."

He says that the company will work more closely with A*Star to hire more scientists to further its research, and adds that doing business globally will require at least another 50 people.

Asked why watchers should put their faith in a brand-new company, he notes that his team will need to work on raising brand awareness.

"We have already shown the market that we can do not just household products. We are also entering new markets, new verticals... I hope that this will give them the confidence that we are not just a one-product company," he says.


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