The Smogathon hackathon aims to stop a smoky menace

If you’ve ever visited Krakow, Poland, you’ll be familiar with the smog. Born of air pollution and fog, the smog regularly shuts down the local airport and casts a pall over this beautiful medieval city. A local entrepreneur, Anna Rys, wants to do her part to shut down the smog by bringing tech to bear on the environmental problem. I spoke to her about the mess in Krakow, her Smogathon, and the theory that a giant dragon is responsible for the pollution.

TechCrunch: Tell me who you are.

Anna Rys: My name is Anna, I’m 29 years old and I’m a startupaholic. That’s why I couldn’t stop myself from saying “Yes!” (or, to be completely honest, something along the lines of “Yeah, OK, if we don’t do it, nobody else will”) when my brother called me one not-sunny-at-all October afternoon and said we have to do something about the worsening air quality in Krakow. We’re both involved in the startup community in Krakow, so we knew that if we were to do that “something” it was going to be innovative. We also knew that there were a lot of innovative people out there working on air pollution-fighting projects or at least with some smog-killing ideas in mind. All they needed was for someone to support them, tell them that what they’re doing is important (and possibly profitable) and point them in the right direction.

TC: Why Krakow? Why smog?

Air pollution is NOT just a problem in Krakow or Poland. 3.3 million people worldwide die prematurely every year because of poor air quality – more than 40,000 in Poland alone. That’s about a dozen times more than the number of deaths caused by traffic accidents. And you would think it’s mostly respiratory health that’s affected, right? Well, think again and take a look at the WHO estimates. Moreover, global air pollution-related medical treatment costs and lost labor income amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. That’s A lot.

For us though, the health factor was the most important reason. We realized that smog has been, quite literally, taking our breath away. Unfortunately, Krakow is one of the most polluted European cities. So, following that memorable and highly unbreathable October day and in just a little under five weeks we had gathered hundreds of people (participants, mentors, jury members, volunteers, and journalists) and companies (partners and sponsors) who cared about the same cause. We organized a 24-hour hackathon dedicated to creating smog-fighting solutions – Smogathon 2015.

TC: Tell me about the Smogathon.

AR: Last year’s event was a good first step. One of the teams participating in Smogathon last year went on to create Airly, a company that produces air quality sensors and is now valued at about $1.2 million. We helped as much as we could but back then it wasn’t much, they had to put a lot of hard work and dedication into it.

That’s why, this year, we have created a formula that will allow us to support the air pollution-fighting projects much better. And we’re not limiting ourselves to Poland this time; we have 28 teams coming to Krakow from all over the world for the event. We are giving them access to some of the best mentors and potential investors and the winners get about $25,000 for developing their project. But here’s the catch: they have to prove that they’re really determined and passionate about what they’re doing by surviving our 24-hour (de)mentoring bootcamp: Smogathon Bootcamp. Only the best teams can survive on this, the battlefield.

The projects that qualified for Smogathon Bootcamp are all at different phases of development: there are well-developed ideas, there are MVPs and working prototypes, and there are mature companies. They all have one thing in common though – a potentially great impact on fighting air pollution with technology and/or science. There are three main areas the projects concentrate on: prevention, monitoring, and filtering.

TC: How can you expand this outside of Poland?

AR: Supporting the teams throughout the entire year after the boot camp of course, but also organizing a truly global event next year, with semi-finals in several different cities around the world and the final round in Krakow. We already have some amazing partners willing to support us, but we’re also still looking for more. It’s a pretty big undertaking that intends to get as many technological projects/startups/companies as possible to join the battle against air pollution. Also, we want the grand prize to be at least $100,000 in 2017. And yes, you’re already invited!

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