– Words by Tess van Straaten Photogrpahy by Lia Crowe
Serial entrepreneur Andrew Crawford is passionate about plants, but the origin of his latest venture—Origen Air—came after an unlikely discovery.
“Origen Air was born out of an unfortunate truth,” explains Andrew, Origen’s co-founder and chief development officer. “I’d started a living-wall company in Victoria with the intention of delivering the cleanest, greenest and most stunning plant-based installations for my clients. Over the years we completed some great projects, but kind of like when you buy a puppy for your kids and you’re initially the hero, within a few months, you start to become the only person that wants to take care of the dog.”
Andrew says the same thing happened with the living walls—after all the excitement wore off, it was just a living thing on the wall that nobody wanted to take care of.
“It was this emergent pain point that drove my desire to develop a more sustainable business model that delivered more than just green aesthetics,” Andrew says.
Determined to make things healthier and happier indoors using plants, Andrew started digging into scientific research data hoping to prove his belief about the restorative power of plants.
“I was raised by an accountant, so numbers need to talk, and I quickly learned that a normal plant growing inside a pot doesn’t really do much of anything for improving the overall air quality,” he says.
But that disappointing discovery quickly led Andrew to the University of Washington (UW), where Dr. Stuart Strand had developed a tropical houseplant that had been scientifically proven to remove man-made toxins from indoor air. Calling it a “watershed moment,” Andrew contacted Dr. Strand to see if he could secure the distribution rights for the so-called “magic plants” capable of removing airborne toxins 80,000 times smaller than the best HEPA filters.
“At that point, I realized I needed to get very serious, very quickly, on a level that I was not qualified for,” says the 45-year-old father of two. “Luckily, I‘d already found my soulmate and life partner, Susan, and I asked her if she wanted to launch a cleantech company with me.”
Origen co-founder and CEO Susan Blanchet picks up the story here, saying, “I was still practicing as legal counsel for the Province of BC, although I have always been very into environmental causes. I have a degree in environmental studies and I’d done a lot of contaminated site litigation, but over the years, I just found I wasn’t doing the things that I loved, and the pursuit of litigation wasn’t the fastest way to make a change.”
An expert at negotiating legal contracts, and born with an entrepreneurial spirit of her own, Susan was able to obtain the rights to UW’s genetically-modified plants and Origen Air—which uses the plants for indoor air purification—was founded in 2019.
It didn’t take long for Susan to leave her secure government job to become the CEO and co-founder of the company. But a few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
“COVID slammed us, yet it also put us on a different path,” recalls the 48-year-old mother of three. “At the time, we had no intention of building the units ourselves. But we realized there was no way we could build them with someone else quickly enough, so we said to our engineers, ‘Just build it!’ and we did—in our 1,500-square-foot office!”
“I think the pandemic really galvanized us as a company and escalated our ‘why?’” Andrew adds. “The reason we left all of our offices and ran home was that a significant airborne threat was now present in our shared airspaces. This invisible virus suddenly forced the world to scrutinize the health and safety of our indoor environments.”
Origen’s original team of two has now grown to 16 and the company has installed around 20 units—from KPMG in Vancouver and CHEK Media and the Bay Centre in Victoria to office buildings in Toronto. Production is ramping up and 200 units are under construction now, with another 200 planned for Ontario early next year.
“We’re breathing life back into buildings. We want to welcome people back to their offices and collaborative workspaces,” Andrew says. “You breathe 18,000 litres of air every single day. If the air you inhale isn’t good, it’s going to have a compounding effect on your health.”
Looking toward the future, Origen Air is planning the development of a smaller, living air purification unit for the home market. The current flagship model, known as The Pinnacle, has been designed, built and priced to serve larger commercial and institutional spaces.
“Our systems represent the divine intersection of biotech, engineering and modern design. It is as alive as the people it protects,” says Susan.
“On the tech start-up road, it was a steep uphill climb,” she adds. “Everything I applied for was a ‘no,’ and there were a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of tough decisions. We had to stay afloat on small grants, subsidies and our personal bank accounts. Maybe my mistake was thinking it would move faster, but I kept holding strong and making sure we had a plan to stay alive.”
“Giving while living” is an important motto to the couple. They have mandated for every 10 units that a single company buys, one brand new Pinnacle unit will be donated to a non-profit such as Ronald McDonald House or Habitat for Humanity. And, in true entrepreneurial fashion, they also have another moon-shot goal on their to-do list.
“We’re working over the next 12 to 18 months to produce a building integrated version. This nature-based solution, dubbed The Canopy, will take existing green-roof technology and amplify both health and energy efficiency benefits by an exponential margin for building owners and occupants. If you imagine a gigantic greenhouse on top of a building filled with tropical plants, you get the basic idea behind this energy efficiency-driven project.
“I am inspired by a future vision of flying into a city, looking down at the urban metropolis below and seeing our lush green canopies capping the tops of buildings. It’s a grand vision, and one that keeps me inspired and thrilled to be a part of this company,” Andrew says.
“Nature always wins,” he smiles.