He took the idea for a business out of air. So did Dustin Jefferson Onghanseng begin his journey into building a business that banked on the one thing that marked his generation: digital technology.
It also helped that Onghanseng, now 34, was grappling with “indoor air issues.” He and uHoo Ltd. co-founder Brian Lin both have chronic breathing conditions. Sharing the same passion for health and sustainability issues, Onghanseng and Lin realized they could harness their passions to good use and solve some major health problems.
To test the validity of their product, the partners joined a 24-hour hackathon to build their first indoor air quality sensor. They won the grueling competition, turned it into a start-up and are pursuing advocacy to help people live healthier lives.
Positioning it as the most comprehensive indoor air quality sensor in the market, uHoo has nine dedicated sensors covering temperature, humidity, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), PM 2.5 (particulate matter that means dust), air pressure, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ozone, and nitrogen oxide
To maximize the benefits of uHoo, Onghanseng recommends the device to be placed in the area of the home where most people spend their time in “because that’s where it will matter.”
Onghanseng told the BusinessMirror in an email interview how the company was built, its plans for expansion and how to continue promoting sustainability and health, among others. uHoo Ltd has presence in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and other European cities. Aside from the Philippines, it is also present in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand.
What motivated you and your cofounder to put up uHoo Ltd.?
My co-founder and I had our own breathing problems. I have allergic rhinitis, while Brian has asthma.
Both of us met during our MBA [Master of Business Administration] program in HKUST [Hong Kong University of Science and Technology] and we often experienced breathing issues inside the school’s dormitory and the school building. We knew there was something wrong with the air inside the buildings.
We built uHoo to understand what those issues and solve our problems: you can only manage what you can measure.
Realizing that poor indoor air affects so many more people, we set out on a path to provide people with technology to understand the air they breathe and empower them with the knowledge to create a healthier home, office environment and public spaces.
Please describe the path toward putting up the company.
It took us three years to perform the R&D [research and development], develop the product and develops the entire manufacturing process.
On the funding side, we got started by investing our entire life savings into the company and winning a few competitions that also provided us with initial capital to build prototypes and hire a few interns to work with us. We eventually raised a funding round in May 2015 from East Ventures with the main purpose of completing the research and development, manufacturing the product and getting it out to market.
We commenced a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in May 2016, where 400 people preordered 500 devices. Marketing of the Indiegogo campaign was mainly done online via social media, Google and press coverage.
This campaign created the market validation, traction, and feedback (both from the B2C [business to consumer] and the B2B [business to business] markets to refine the product for product market fit. We eventually formally launched and started shipping the product in June 2017 to all those who preordered and also commenced projects with various customers in the real-estate development [and] management, health care, hospitality, and government sectors.
It is a challenge in building the team because you need the proper mix of skills, personality, and commitment to a shared vision. Such people are hard to come by.
Given that we’re a start-up, speed is an essential factor. Everything needs to be completed yesterday and there would be a lot of sleepless nights to get things done and released to market.
Salary is also not guaranteed because it depends on how the company is doing for that month. This was especially so before we launched the product to market. The entire team wouldn’t get salaries for certain months, but everyone still pushed forward because everyone believes in the product, the company, and the mission. Everyone eventually got paid their salaries back when the company had a bit more cushion to afford it. In spite of all the challenges, the current team still stuck with each other and the company.
Today, the company is growing and the entire team is working toward the shared goal of providing technology to people to understand the air they breathe and empower them with knowledge and capabilities to create a healthier home, office environment and public spaces
What were the challenges it encountered along the way?
Building a company and a product from scratch is no easy path. Building a hardware device is even harder.
It took us three years of R&D and product development before we launched uHoo to market. Some of the challenges we faced included talent, finding the right manufacturing partner and designing the product properly for the market.
Up until today, talent is still a challenge we encounter on a daily basis. We have exceptional people in the team and it takes time to find people with the right mix of skills, personality, and commitment to a shared vision.
What was your initial response when uHoo was first recognized in the overseas market rather than in the Philippines?
Markets adopt technology at different paces and times and this is dependent on what the immediate needs of the market are. We have customers both locally in the Philippines and also abroad.
Do you think Filipinos need more awareness to appreciate the importance of uHoo?
Filipinos are aware of the problems of air pollution in our country. The lesser-known fact is that air pollution indoors is often worse than outdoors. Not knowing this fact not only applies in the Philippines but also in other countries.
Once people know about this fact, it creates awareness and they start to appreciate and take note of the air they breathe indoors and how it affects their health and well-being. Once they start using uHoo, they get attached to it because we provide them with peace of mind that they are in a healthy and safe place and, if something is amiss, action needs to be taken.
What are the market segments that uHoo is targeting?
The sectors we are focused on are real estate and property development, health care [hospitals and clinics], hospitality and large corporate offices. The value uHoo provides these sectors are strategic and long term.
Good indoor air has proven to increase productivity, lower sick leaves and create a better mood, which results in a more effective team and happier occupants. Aside from this, deploying uHoo in buildings also allows them to obtain green building credits and points.
Companies in these sectors have also already invested millions in air-conditioning and ventilation systems, and uHoo is able to unlock the real value of this investment by providing the insights on how to use them in an optimal manner.