INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Societal Impact-driven Businesses are More Resilient during Economic Crises, says Robert Heinecke, CEO of Breeze Technologies – Lessons Learnt during the Pandemic
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Robert Heinecke: We are doing well. One plus of the pandemic is the greatly reduced amount of travelling necessary for business, enabling me to spend more time with friends and family. It’s surprising how quickly it was suddenly okay to do business remotely, without ever meeting in person. I hope this social acceptance of video conferencing for business deals is something that we will also keep past the current pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Breeze Technologies
Robert Heinecke: I’m a computer scientist by study and a strategy and digitalization consultant by trade. In winter 2014, I was living and working in Istanbul for a couple of months, and this was where I experienced heavy smog for the first time. On some days of my stay, you could barely see the other side of the street!
Digging deeper into the topic, I found that the way we are monitoring air quality and planning and implementing clean air actions has not really changed in the last 40 years. We very few big, bulky, and very expensive air quality monitoring stations sitting on the roadside. For most of the city, we have to rely on inaccurate dispersion models, which also makes it difficult to understand which clean air actions work and which don’t.
With my background in technology, I knew that there was probably a smarter way to do this. I saw an opportunity to create a business, but even more important, to facilitate a lasting positive impact on our society. Together with a colleague, our now CTO Sascha Kuntze, I jumped on this opportunity and founded Breeze Technologies.
How does Breeze Technologies innovate?
Robert Heinecke: I think we are lucky in that sense that Breeze Technologies only exists because we have an innovative product. To get where we are now and win new partners and customers, it is critical to question everything we think we know about measuring air quality, monitoring the rest of the environment, mitigating air pollution, and creating a profitable business.
Every member of our team is listened to; everybody brings different experiences and expertise to the table. Creating the right team to create something unique and trusting them to make the right decisions is key to stay ahead.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Robert Heinecke: Our governmental business has not really been impacted at all; we even had more requests from mayors, city, and government representatives interested in engaging on the air quality and city climate topic in the months of the lockdown, when emissions went down. On the other hand, deals with businesses rapidly went down, but have since been recovering. It helps that, different to many other startups, we were already profitable before the crisis and remained so throughout it.
The biggest impact has probably been on our internal collaboration. We switched to nearly 100% remote operations. While we have loosened this policy with declining COVID-19 numbers, everybody is still free to work from home. It took a couple of weeks to get fully used to remote meetings and remote collaboration, but luckily we had all the right tools like Slack and Trello already in place and just had to intensify on their usage.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Robert Heinecke: I think the business life is full of difficult decisions, that is something that we all have experience with. I think we have made a lot of good decisions – even with the ongoing pandemic, and we did not have to let anybody go, but are now rather increasing our team. It helps to listen to your team for information and advice, look at the data, and consider what your gut tells you.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Breeze Technologies in the future?
Robert Heinecke: Personally, I’m quite stress-resistant. What supports me in this is that our work has an actual meaning that we are creating a real societal impact with the work that we are doing. Because of that, I have no problem working a couple of hours extra – I know that my work does good. Incidentally, this focus on the “triple bottom line “also makes your business more resilient for crises.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Robert Heinecke: We are competing with a couple of big names that have been in the business for decades and producing the legacy equipment that I previously mentioned. Those big, bulky, and expensive monitoring stations follow a completely different paradigm than what we can achieve today. Of course, there are also other startups out there. We differentiate from all of those by not only providing accurate and affordable data for the whole built environment but also providing insights and recommendations on potential clean air actions. We derive those from a catalog of more than 3,500 clean air actions that we have built up over the last years, and we leverage artificial intelligence to come to those decisions that may work and what probably won’t. And I think this is really key – not creating additional problems for a customer, but actually helping them to find the right solutions for their scenario.
Your final thoughts
Robert Heinecke: Air pollution and Coronavirus mortality have now been linked in several studies. While more research is needed, air pollution alone is one of the greatest killers in the world. I hope that with the ongoing pandemic, we do not lose track of society’s sustainability goals. It’s now more critical than ever to fight pollution, fight climate change, and create a more liveable environment for us and for the generations to come.
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