While Professor Yogi Goswami holds 22 U.S. patents, including many related to solar energy, it’s his creation of a device driven by the health of his children that he might end up as his most lasting legacy.
As part of the ongoing University Beat series focusing on entrepreneurs with ties to the University of South Florida, we talked with the Director of USF’s Clean Energy Research Center about the Molekule air purifier, which he’s been developing for over 20 years.
Goswami said the initial impetus came in the mid 1990’s when he and his wife found out their then young son, Dilip, was diagnosed with asthma and a number of other allergies.
“We found out early on that we could take care of his food allergies, but he was still having asthma attacks, so there were some other triggers which I figured were in the air that he was breathing,” said Goswami. “So I started to look for air purifiers on the market – none of that helped him.”
That lack of help motivated Goswami to use patented solar technology that he had developed at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, FL, to clean up the base’s contaminated ground water.
“This is a photo electrochemical oxidation (PECO) process,” explained Goswami. “Any contaminants that are in the air, they just get destroyed and converted to basic elements that are supposed to be in the air.”
“It has a pre-filter that filters out the large particles, and then the other contaminants roll through the pre-filter and go to a nanofilter, which then, with the action of light, destroys them,” he added.
That PECO light action uses free radicals and nanotechnology to oxidize pollutants, including those 1,000 times smaller than the ones traditional HEPA filters eliminates.
Once Goswami had developed a prototype that worked the way he wanted it to, devices were sent to volunteers around the country for beta testing.
“What we found was amazing: a week after using the device, the symptoms of allergy sufferers went down to symptoms of non-allergy sufferers, and after four weeks, the symptom reduction was sustainable,” he said.
And Goswami’s son wasn’t the family’s only test subject – he lent his daughter, Jaya Rao, a prototype when she experienced headaches shortly after she moved to Tampa.
“When she saw us about two weeks later, she was not complaining about the headaches,” said Goswami. “So when we reminded her that (we had given her the purifier), she said, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to work on.’”
Rao, who has degrees in mechanical engineering and public policy, quit her job and joined her father and brother in working at their newly formed company. Yogi is Chief Scientist, Dilip – who holds degrees in electrical engineering – is Chief Executive Officer, and Rao is Chief Operating Officer.
The Molekule air purifier was named one of Time magazine's "25 Best Inventions of 2017." While it isn’t large – about two feet tall and a little over eight inches around – it is expensive, retailing for $799 with replacement filters available for a $129 annual subscription. But Goswami said demand is high.
“It’s selling very well, in fact, we ran out of supplies when the demand went up faster than what we could predict.”
Molekule has now expanded to a business with close to 100 employees in offices in Tampa, Costa Rica and its headquarters in San Francisco.
“I’m glad that the device was available in California when they recently had wildfires,” said Goswami. “That’s when people needed the device. (Molekule’s California) employees stayed there late nights, weekends, they even drove to people’s houses to deliver units, because those people really needed the purifiers then.”
The device is currently only available on the Molekule website for customers in the U.S. and Canada, but Goswami said they’re looking at making it available internationally.
“Especially in Asian countries, like China, India, South Korea and Hong Kong, so we’re hoping that sometime in the future, we’ll be ready to sell over there also,” he said.
Goswami recently received the “American Dream Award” recognizing him for his accomplishments after immigrating to the U.S. and Tampa. But, after decades of research, he’s still a little surprised at the direction his career has taken him.
“You never know,” Goswami said with a laugh. “As an inventor, you have an idea that you think is going to solve a problem, and so you invent that technology. Later on, it depends on how it can get commercialized.”
“(Inventors) have to think in practical terms – just because you have done some experiments in the lab doesn’t mean it will work the same way in the field,” said Goswami. “You have to go from the laboratory to prototypes and if it continues to work the way you had anticipated, then you can take the next step to commercialize.”
“There you do need money, so you have to go to people who are interested in investing in start-up companies, and once you get that match, then you can go from there,” he said, adding, “The scientist who has the original idea has to continue to be involved so that it’s done the right way.”