Meet the innovator capturing pollutants from vehicles

Serial inventor Kristen Tapping is developing an air filtration device for heavy vehicles to help clean polluted air on city streets, and is supported by Connected Places Catapult in her quest to bring a useful product to market.

Walk or cycle along any busy road in a major city and you will definitely notice the traffic, and possibly smell the exhaust fumes, but are unlikely to think about another pressing issue: particulate matter. These tiny pollutants generated by the wearing down of vehicles brakes, tyres and the highway surface – and from exhausts too – are mostly invisible, but can have a large impact on human health.

“It’s a very big problem that’s not recognised enough,” says Kristen Tapping of start-up company GoRolloe and inventor of a new pollution cleansing device for vehicles. “These particles are very harmful, but you can’t see or smell them; you don’t know they’re there.”

She explains that city streets with tall buildings act like canyons, with particulate matter getting trapped and recirculated in the air, with higher concentrations at lower levels. “The problem is worse in summer, and when there’s no rain to wash pollution down the drain.”

Kristen Tapping says particulate matter in cities is a problem

Kristen’s idea is to retrofit her new air purification device onto commercial vehicles to draw pollutants in and capture particulate matter. Her goal is to catch about 50% of particulates; and she is working with two co-founders with engineering and science backgrounds – as well as various external laboratories and engineering consultancies – to determine the impact her device could have.

Exactly how the filtration system works is kept secret, but Kristen says the units will feature reuseable, rather than disposable filters that can be cleaned to cut down on waste.

Last year saw Kristen and colleagues complete six months of research and development after they received £30,000 of funding from the Transport Research & Innovation Grants (TRIG) ‘future of freight’ programme, delivered by Connected Places Catapult on behalf of the Department for Transport. The money helped to take the concept from a Technology Readiness Level of two to four, which saw a working prototype created and tested in a laboratory.

This spring will see the start of trials of the device on a heavy goods vehicle on a test track, with a view to on-road testing beginning in April. Kristen is also looking to develop a smaller version for light commercial vehicles too. If all goes to plan, she will look to raise a funding round this autumn to start field trials and begin commercialising the product.

Brimming with ideas

Kristen Tapping describes herself as “an inventor at heart”, who gets “lots of ideas – and then tries to make them work”. She was born in France and her family moved between several countries before settling in the United States. She enjoyed sketching in a notebook as a child and often questioned why things worked the way they do.

She studied journalism and started her career in public relations before becoming a personal trainer. Kristen went back to university in Colorado to study physiotherapy, then switched to interior design. But she found the subject quite limiting, so took time out before enrolling on an industrial design course. “Right away, I felt it was the right fit: I remember the woodwork studio and the metal workshop and the plastics laboratory. It was very hands on and was perfect for me.

“We had a tough teacher who taught us architectural hand drafting, and it would take dozens of hours to get one drawing done; but I loved it. I then thought about how I might start working to design products.”

During her studies, she worked as a bartender and spotted the potential to make decorative items out of empty liquor bottles. Kristen took several bags of the bottles home to make candle holders, and later chandeliers. She set up a wholesale business creating liquor candles – and over the next 18 months worked on several commissions including one for $3000.

Kristen decided to leave America for Europe, “so packed a couple of suitcases and hopped on a plane with my dog to England” to complete her studies in product design at London South Bank University, during which she took a year off to work as a Design Engineer at an automotive interior manufacturing company.

To make ends meet during her studies, she entered a design competition and ended up winning; pocketing £500. She entered a second competition and won another £500. “I though this is cool: I can make money from my designs and pay my way through college!”

Kristen started chasing more prestigious competitions and secured two victories in 2018: winning £3000 for a wheelchair design featuring an extra set of wheels to make its operation easier, and £10,000 for a new electric water heating appliance. Two years later, she won £25,000 for a reusable storage system for contact lenses.

But it was her follow-up innovation that really caught the imagination (with a short segment on The Gadget Show on Channel 5) and was a pre-curser to Kristen’s vehicle project: a bicycle featuring an air filtration device. The invention won her the ‘Design Innovation in Plastics’ award in 2020.

For the last few years, Kristen has been based at London South Bank University in a workspace featuring 3D printers to create prototypes, hand tools and a small wind tunnel, where alongside her team she designs and tests her ideas. She is also a part-time lecturer of design engineering and engineering software.

Pivoting from bicycles to vehicles

Several factors persuaded Kristen to switch her focus from bicycles to vehicles to carry the air purification device. Some investors asked her why a bike – a sustainable mode of transport generating very little particulate matter – should be cleaning up after motor vehicles.

Another factor was that bicycle dimensions vary, so it was hard to come up with a standard product to fit every style.

“As a concept, the bicycle device did work,” she says. “After testing, we were surprised just how much particulate matter it captured.” But it proved difficult to get retailers interested. “My contacts wouldn’t answer the phone, so I thought maybe it was a sign to park the bike and focus on vehicles where there appeared to be more commercial demand.”

Kristen says of Connected Places Catapult: “It was great to be able to speak to people who co-ordinate activities and help us survive the early years of being a start-up.

“It was also nice to meet people on the TRIG accelerator. Talking to other start-ups helps you to learn from their experiences around funding and how they resource their companies. It’s good to be in that ecosystem.”

Opportunities and challenges for entrepreneurs

Kristen says she didn’t realise just how hard it would be to enter the clean air sector as an inventor. “You need very skilled people around you, expensive equipment and be ready to dedicate a lot of time and money,” she says. “It can also be hard to get on in the automotive world as a start-up without creating partnerships.

“The UK has a large number of new start-ups, and my experience so far has been very good. Funding and tax breaks are available, and there are lots of programmes available to support you.”

But she adds that Brexit may have made some things harder. “Sometimes I drive product samples to a client in Germany or take them with me on a plane because it would take too long to ship them, as they can get stuck in customs.”

She also calls for improvements in how some universities work alongside inventors; with fairer terms for those coming up with new ideas. “Sometimes the university wants to take most of the intellectual property away from inventors, but that doesn’t really motivate individuals to create new things.”

But she does encourage more people with an interest in industrial or product design to follow their dream and return to university as a mature student. “As you get a bit older, you have more ideas – and may find yourself ending up as an inventor!”

Hear from innovators working with the Catapult at the Connected Places Summit on 20-21 March.