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Students hatch tool to monitor indoor air

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CitiSense co-founders Brennetta Thames, left, and Emma Hillman, stand with their CitiSense device, which monitors indoor air quality. The two are students at Lehigh University. PHOTO/SAMANTHA MCGINTY-LEHIGH UNIVERSITY
CitiSense co-founders Brennetta Thames, left, and Emma Hillman, stand with their CitiSense device, which monitors indoor air quality. The two are students at Lehigh University. PHOTO/SAMANTHA MCGINTY-LEHIGH UNIVERSITY

At Lehigh University, participants in a 12-week summer program apply design thinking and lean startup methods to develop solutions, test potential business ideas and collaborate with other students passionate about learning the foundational skills of entrepreneurship while working to solve problems that matter.

For Brennetta Thames, who grew up suffering with breathing issues and environmental sensitivities, the program – the Baker Institute Hatchery Student Idea Accelerator – may lead to a viable business.

Together with undergrad Emma Hillman, she hopes to combat the concentration of indoor air pollutants that aggravate breathing disorders such as asthma and other allergies.

Thames will graduate in May 2019 with a degree in environmental engineering and Hillman in 2020 with a focus on mechanical engineering and environmental studies.

The two hatched CitiSense, an embryonic business concept designed to not only recognize the potential for indoor air pollutants but also to empower people to take control of their health by taking action to reduce or eliminate those pollutants.

“What we learned was there was not enough inspections conducted to keep track of the conditions of the properties before they become blighted,” said Thames. “There are a limited number of state-certified inspectors. Funding is limited and inconsistent.”

To solve the problem, CitiSense blends state-of-the-art air quality monitors connected to real-time data and statistics that can be used to identify air-quality challenges.

“We can see if a problem is starting to get worse in a house due to an air-quality issue; you would be able to detect it before an inspector comes around every couple years,” said Hillman. “It will keep constant tabs. There would be a lot less maintenance. It would be a lot earlier detection; you could solve those problems before they get too expensive.”

 

AN EARLY-WARNING SYSTEM

Possible subscribers to CitiSense, such as property management professionals, government entities and hospitals, could find value in identifying and rectifying early-warning signs of potential air-quality problems and reducing ER visits, hospitalizations and absenteeism caused by preventable, unaddressed issues such as mold and remnants of pest infestations.

One advisor of Hatchery’s program sees the value of CitiSense’s offering, citing studies outlining the consequences of unaddressed air-quality issues, including the extra burden on health care practitioners, economic impacts created through absenteeism, and the stresses and strains on both physical and mental health.

“More and more people – from city code enforcement offices to local hospitals – are noticing the strong connection between building/neighborhood conditions and residents' physical and mental well-being,” said Karen Beck Pooley, Lehigh University’s director of environmental policy. “Having an easy way to identify conditions that are most prone to cause health problems, and then learn of easy ways to address them, would be an incredibly powerful way to avoid unnecessary health problems. And taken together, these results paint a valuable picture for health care providers, public health professionals and code enforcement officials.”

 

RIPPLE EFFECTS

The potential impact of CitiSense and other projects incubated in Lehigh’s Hatchery could create a ripple effect beyond the Lehigh Valley.

“Students come into this 12-week program typically without a problem and through the process identify a problem they want to solve,” said Lisa Getzler, Baker Institute’s executive director. “We help them apply the entrepreneurial approach to solving a problem. It’s often the case by the end of the 12 weeks they haven’t really got a solution. The Baker Institute provides coaching for those who want to continue so that they can decide on next steps … to ultimately do something with their idea that will actually provide a solution to the problem they’ve identified.”

Launched in 2010, the Baker Institute applies creative problem-solving ideas to entrepreneurial endeavors. Named after Lehigh alumnus and former Air Products and Chemicals Inc. chairman Dexter Baker, it provides a path for students who might not otherwise see themselves as entrepreneurs and creates awareness of how to apply entrepreneurial thinking in a variety of settings and career paths.

“Being a person who can see a problem as an opportunity to create value is an ethos that Dexter Baker wanted us to spread,” Getzler said. “Our goal is to have students experience the process of entrepreneurship by actually doing it. It’s something that will give them a way of seeing the world that is going to help them succeed regardless of what they do … We like to say it’s not just about being an entrepreneur; it’s about being an entrepreneurial being.”

Businessman and mentor Louis Intile, manager and owner of Fifth Street Properties in Bethlehem, shares that sentiment. Intile mentored Thames and Hillman at the outset of their project.

“We met with them a couple times when they were formulating and helped to give them advice,” he said. “They focused on improving living conditions and working conditions, particularly in the cities. They have come a very long way in owning their idea.”

Intile sees how CitiSense could make a big impact not only in the residential setting, but also in areas such as public housing, schools and larger-scale commercial and government buildings.

“Lisa Getzler at Lehigh has really expanded the entrepreneurial programs to allow for those types of opportunities for these students,” he said. “All the companies that are coming out of the Hatchery and the Mountaintop (Initiative) are bringing an entrepreneurial side to Lehigh. That’s a huge plus for the university’s offerings.”

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