BBV Founder Spotlight: David Lu — Clarity
The BBV Founder Spotlight is a series of posts highlighting founders from our portfolio companies and the incredible work they are pursuing to solve challenges in critical industries such as health and climate through technology innovation.
Thank you David Lu for taking the time.
Contributor Irfan Vissandjee
Tell us about your company. What defines your innovation?
For us, our company is founded on the simple mission: empowering the world to reduce air pollution. We have been driven by that mission, which is the source of our product direction and innovation per se. Innovation is the tool to achieve goals for the company, at Clarity, we always ask ourselves: “How do we make it easier for stakeholders to better manage and reduce the air pollution in cities with improved monitoring tools?”
Where did your company’s name come from?
We actually started with Clairity when initially pitched at the CITRIS Foundry but decided to change the name because it became way too confusing. We also felt we wanted to generate a startup movement for better air management practice and how to address these issues, embedded in our hope for a better cleaner future. Combining both, we finally agreed on Clarity Movement.
What was the motivation behind starting your company?
For me personally, I think it has a lot to do with my background. I grew up in China until I was 18 years old, my home country has possibly some of the most polluted cities in the world back then. The transition moving from China to the USA was quite a big shock for me. I recall telling myself how bright the color of the sky is without the dust particles when I landed at the airport, very different from your polluted Shanghai skyline for example.
Although China has done a good job cleaning up the air, studying environmental science at Berkeley awakened the urge to really want to apply what I learned and have an impact. Additionally, I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, my thinking is that it is possible to build a good business model that can both attract capital while asserting a positive impact on the world. Indeed, even if this isn’t an easy task, I’m glad we are witnessing enthusiasm from stakeholders that climate change-related issues are increasingly important and have become the centre stage of political debate globally. The world is finally realising climate is vital and I’m glad we are going into this direction.
What role did the University play in the formation of your company or technology?
A huge part! In the early days, there was a lot of hesitation for me as a student. First of all, the University program on campus helped me pursue my degree while launching Clarity. Secondly, accessing facilities, supplies, access to labs and developing my technology wasn’t going to be possible without UC Berkeley. So definitely, the university played a fundamental role. Finally, I wouldn’t have started this without the CITRIS Foundry. The level of commitment and support I received early on, encouraged me to take this venture even more seriously. Peter, Alic and Patrick gave us amazing advice as we launched Clarity.
How did you meet your co-founder? How long did it take?
We had a total of five co-founders although today only three remain. Each encounter has a different story.
Starting with the first one, Deepak (unfortunately he is no longer with the company) and I met at our gig working at the cafeteria in our dishwashing job. Both of us were handling dishes, an incredibly boring job but we both clicked given his tech-savvy background. The second co-founder I met was Hannah (also no longer active with the company) through our chemical lab. She was passionate about Environment and I could tell she was a bright student, so the team was composed organically and the three of us initially pitched the Foundry. As we started, Baljot (who was Deepak’s roommate) was brought up to speed and started with us given his mechanical engineering background. It was decided later that he could play a bigger role in the company given the complementary skills within the team.
Paolo, the last co-founder, and I met one year after the company formation when we raised angel funding. He was the lead developer for the technology and was going to become the CTO.
The big part we all share is our care for the environment which has tied and glued our team throughout the challenging times.
How is the firm different today than when you first started?
Very much different. Today, we’re running it like a company which is also venture-backed which means we answer to a board of directors, adding more structure to our day-to-day. Back in the early days we were having fun, building prototypes without commercialisation in mind. We now focus on themes like company culture, growth, financials, retention metrics etc. I am thankful that the team stayed motivated and mission-driven throughout the process of company creation despite the lows that we have gone through — for example, when the company was not able to remunerate the team for months. They all stayed because we care! Every team member is incredibly talented and highly skilled, instead of getting well-paid jobs in the Valley, we stayed united because we strongly believe in what we do. If we try hard enough, we could help a boy or girl breathe easier somewhere in the world. No matter how the company grows I hope we keep this mindset. We are grateful to have built something from scratch which is now deployed across the world and making a difference, thanks to the team that we have.
How has the fundraising process been for the company?
The fundraising process was tough. I felt responsible for my co-founders but the process was incredibly hard.
Concerning the Seed round, it was a lot of chance somehow. We impressed the financing team with our model and prototype and next thing you know we were on a plane to Switzerland to negotiate a deal and sign a contract, within a 2-month time frame.
The next round was relatively quick as well. I had been fundraising for a while but back in December, we were introduced to an investor who was super jazzed about our mission. He loved the team and immediately started the due diligence on Clarity, initially by sending 5 pages of questions. We worked over Christmas, provided him with a 100 pages documentation to complete the due diligence process. The investor loved our dedication and we eventually received the term sheet in January that we closed before the pandemic hit.
What aspects of BBV’s coaching and support was the most helpful?
The BBV Team’s mentorship and insights were invaluable to Clarity’ early-stage growth. As we constructed our funding round(s) we focused on identifying highly-engaged investors that were willing to work closely with us to overcome our early challenges and provide access to their valuable networks to explore new opportunities and better understand new market segments.
What’s ahead for your company in 2021?
2021 represents an interesting challenge for us at Clarity. There is definitely an increase of awareness for better air quality needs across the world. With the post-pandemic mindset, we see a positive play unravel although countries’ budgets will be a challenge.
Let me remind you that the US air quality monitoring infrastructure is falling apart. We actually see this as an opportunity for a transition into new ways to monitor air quality by leveraging the latest IoT technology and use this as a supplement to existing infrastructure.
It’s a future of accurate, reliable and enhanced data collection (100s vs. a couple of sensors at the moment) to better inform municipalities with air quality management decisions and on top of that making significant budget savings. 2021 is a great year to push that concept forward so our hope is that by 2023 our solution can be rolled out to 1000 cities in the world.
We believe that goal is achievable with the right partners, which we have started to engage with.
What lasting impact do you want to leave with your company?
We want to improve how the world measures air quality. For us, measurement is crucial in a world that is converging to a more sustainable future. Starting with air pollution, this can be applied to several other sectors. The idea is that without measurement you can’t really identify or characterize the problem, or properly evaluate the potential solutions. Are the efforts fruitful? How are they effective? Do they last?
Being able to precisely measure air pollution empowers governments, businesses, and communities to act with confidence when taking steps to improve air quality. . So we’re focused on making it easier and more cost-effective for our customers to access hyperlocal air quality data they can trust — because measurement is the first step to improvement.
Describe your firm’s culture in 5 words or less
Act with integrity, compassion, empowering, ownership, stay hungry & stay foolish, embrace the unknown