Breathing pretty: the global rise and rise of early SSE Alum, AusAir
For AusAir’s dynamic trio of young co-founders – brothers Elias and Isaac Honor and their childhood mate Jack Graham – the journey from imagination to ignition, through three years of R&D and iterations towards their eventual go to market, the entrepreneurship journey has been a wild ride. And it’s only just begun!
The Aussie startup, accelerated by one of the Sydney School of Entrepreneurship’s (SSE) earliest programs and arguably one of its greatest success stories, marks its sixth anniversary in 2023. To mark the occasion, Elias has generously shared with us some of the trio’s key reflections, insights, and highlights of the AusAir story thus far.
How bad air sowed the seed for a fresh idea
Inspired by the co-founders’ travel adventure in China (where airborne particulate matter is particularly high) the AusAir seed was sown in 2017.
"While we were away, Jack became rundown and sick, and Isaac and I weren’t feeling the best either,” Elias explains. “We felt fatigued and tired, something we’d never encountered before. So when we got home, we looked into the scope of the problem and found out how harmful poor air quality is to your health.
“The masks we had weren’t that great; they weren't very comfortable, they didn't look very good, and they actually weren’t even very effective in filtering out the particulate matter in the air.”
While the trio was struck by the devastating impacts of poor air quality on health, they were more appalled by the lack of awareness around these dangers and that so many people exposed to this problem weren’t taking actions to protect themselves. ‘Why weren't there any good solutions?’, they asked themselves.
The true value of mentorship
Ironically, the team’s first big break – and first contact with SSE – came in 2018 through a scholarship to participate in China Start, one of SSE’s earliest accelerator programs.
The program, run in partnership with the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, not only exposed them to veteran Australian-based entrepreneurs, but they were also able to travel together through China learning real-time how to pitch (including to some of China’s largest businesses like Tencent, JD.com and Fosun Group), raise capital, develop products, and everything else needed to start a business.
“The SSE experience was invaluable for us in terms of the learning curve and facilitating access to great resources, like the entrepreneur mentors, helping us to progress through the process a lot faster than if we had been doing it all on our own.
“Not to be critical of formal university education in any way [Elias and Isaac were both at university at the time, and the company is still aligned with Sydney University] but being able to experience the learning and mentoring in a real-world context, was really, really important.”
Crowdfunding for the ($3 million) win
Buoyed by the idea having bene so well received in China, the team was determined to self-fund the launch of the business, making crowdfunding an optimal route. Two successful campaigns followed in 2020, with the company initially raising AU$1.1 million on Kickstarter, then $3 million on Indiegogo.
“And then,” recounts Elias, “we went into mass production.”
“It was a surreal experience,” the co-founder says. “I can actually remember Isaac and myself when we launched it, we were in McDonald’s of all places. I saw our first customer pop up on my phone via the Kickstarter app – ‘so-and-so has pledged X amount as a pre-order’ – and it just blew my mind.
“For three years at that point we’d been working on this thing and then, seemingly all of a sudden, it just came to life. Then it started escalating, and it has just kept going and going and going.”
Founder’s advice for young entrepreneurs
With the focus – and with it the attentions of young people – so often on the concept of ‘fast-money’ ideas like drop shipping, Elias has some sage advice for young entrepreneurs. “While drop shipping has its merits, in that it’s a lightning-fast learning cycle, entrepreneurship is better viewed as a long game.
“For us, even if this first business hadn’t succeeded, the learnings we would have taken from it and our time spent working with SSE, we would have implemented in the next venture, and so on. Learning as you go is like compounding savings in the bank; you do better the next time, you surround yourself with better people, you make better informed decisions.
“That's why programs like these are called ‘accelerators’ because they do accelerate you through the learning curve; by putting you in touch with incredible people, applying real stressors and so on. Your first venture may fail, your second may do better, and your third might be the one that really brings the bank, or makes the mark you set out to make.”
What’s next for AusAir?
Today, AusAir is the world’s leading high-tech filtration mask company, creating advanced performance technology to protect the world’s urban explorers.
Its technology roadmap and story are permanently housed in the iconic Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney. A successful merino mask collaboration with luxury clothing brand Canada Goose followed. And in the coming months it will go into production on a range of compostable medical masks, developed in conjunction with HealthShare NSW, that are proven to biodegrade in landfill at a very high rate (around 80-90% depending on the product) vs. their traditional PPE counterparts.
Elias also promises that there is more ‘big news’ on the horizon.
We can’t wait.