First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jack O’Toole: Fortunately, we live in a small town that has had very few cases of COVID-19. Our hearts go out to all of those who have suffered from the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded FreshAir.
Jack O’Toole: I spent my first career in the military. When I retired, I attended business school. I realized that I wanted to do something that would continue to contribute to society. While I was in school, I started looking for a technology that I could commercialize. I was fortunate to meet my partner, Professor Joe BelBruno. Joe is a renowned expert in sensors. When I met Joe, he had invented a sensor that could detect airborne nicotine. I immediately realized that this sensor could help hotels solve a serious problem, unauthorized smoking in rooms. Preventing unauthorized smoking protects people from being exposed to secondhand smoke.
How does FreshAir innovate?
Jack O’Toole: FreshAir develops and commercializes novel, proprietary sensors. Our first product has the only technology to monitor for, and specifically detect, tobacco smoke and marijuana smoke. Our Wi-Fi device monitors rooms 24 hours a day. When someone smokes in a monitored space, our cloud-based monitoring platform immediately alerts our client. The alert includes a time-coded chart of the substance detected, providing scientific proof of smoking. The scientific proof allows clients to successfully collect cleaning fees and enforce their no-smoking policies. Our devices detect specific molecular components of tobacco smoke and marijuana smoke, so they aren’t set off by common excuses like candles, incense, or shower steam. We help clients keep their rooms clean, healthy, and safe.
FreshAir has also developed the only sensor that can specifically detect vaping. We are working on bringing It to the market.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jack O’Toole: Our largest client segment is the hospitality industry. With the industry’s current challenges, many properties feel like they aren’t in a position to try something new. Installing and using our devices increases revenue, but many potential clients are nervous.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jack O’Toole: Unfortunately, this has been a very difficult time for hotels. When everything shut down, we waived monitoring fees for our hotel clients for 3 ½ months. After the initial 3 ½ months, things started to open, but hotel occupancy was very low. We went to ½ price monitoring for properties that were open and continue to waive the monitoring fees for properties that were closed. The loss of revenue is a serious issue for us, but we have prioritized supporting our partners in the hotel industry.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and FreshAir in the future?
Jack O’Toole: Being in a startup is very stressful; there are frequent ups and downs. It can be very stressful. When things are difficult, we focus on the fact that we provide a valuable service that helps both our clients and their customers. We continue to provide good service to our clients and have faith that our client base will continue to grow.
We also frequently remind ourselves that startups are a complex problem-solving exercise. Every difficult problem that you solve makes it harder for someone else to copy you. There were a lot of people selling books online in the early 1990s. Amazon solved more hard problems and created advantages that others couldn’t match.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jack O’Toole: Our biggest competitor is the status quo. A hotel or property manager can just ignore the problem like they always have.
We will stay in the game by continuing to help our clients fulfill their brand promise; provide a clean, healthy, and safe environment; and grow revenue.
In the long term, I believe that customers will expect to be protected from smoking.
Your final thoughts?
Jack O’Toole: Fresh Air’s mission is improving lives through novel sensor technology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to spend every day solving problems with a team of positive, bright, and enthusiastic people.