Irish company’s allergy programme not to be sneezed at
Founder surprised at lack of awareness over trigger factors that cause breathing distress
Dr John McKeon established the company in 2000 when working in a Dublin asthma and allergy clinic.
An Irish company is helping 60 million people in the US affected by asthma and allergies to live healthier, happier lives. The Dublin-based firm is literally setting the standards for products developed to keep asthmatic and allergic attacks at bay.
Allergy Standards Ltd conducts research that sets international standards for a wide range of products from televisions to vacuum cleaners and hypoallergenic pillows to paint products. The company provides hard scientific data that proves whether claims made about reducing the risk of allergic reaction are scientifically verifiable.
Allergy Standards Ltd last month captured one of the three prizes in the 2019 US-Ireland Research Innovation Awards. It won the Small to Medium Enterprise category in the award programme, a joint initiative of the Royal Irish Academy and the American Chamber of Commerce, Ireland.
The company won the prize for the development of a certification programme that applies high quality scientific research to prove that a product does what it claims to do in reducing asthmatic and allergenic reactions.
Irish doctor Dr John McKeon set up the company in 2000 when working in an asthma and allergy clinic in a Dublin hospital. He described his surprise at the lack of awareness among parents and patients on how to manage the condition by avoiding the trigger factors that cause breathing distress.
He was a Trinity College Dublin graduate and followed other family members into medicine. “But I always had a strong interest in innovation and entrepreneurship,” McKeon says. “I was interested in things like job creation, something just as valuable as doing medicine. We formerly exported our people but now we were exporting new ideas and innovation.”
He decided to take the plunge, joining up with Dr John O’Mahony and attracting an Enterprise Ireland grant to get things going. “At one point I said, ‘what have I done,’ ” McKeon says. “My mother was scared about giving up the surgery for this. It was a bit of a shock.”
He needed to learn more about how to be an entrepreneur and signed up for a hothouse programme run by the then Dublin Institute of Technology, now the Technological University Dublin. He also started to assess claims being made for products that were meant to be suited to asthmatics and what sources could trigger an attack.
This sounded easy but in reality was highly complex. The indoor environment includes expected things like mites and pet dander but vacuum cleaners were also a source of disbursed allergens via escaping air through inadequate filters. There are organic solvents in paint, and textiles and some cleaning products can trigger a reaction, McKeon says.
You could buy a hypoallergenic pillow but its claims were not backed up by any science the manufacturer could produce. A vacuum cleaner might have a “highly efficient particulate arrest” filter and there was data to show the filter worked, but not all the air was channelled through the filter so the results were meaningless.
“So there were a lot of spurious claims,” McKeon says. The idea then hit him, set up a strongly science-based lab that could measure performance and suitability of a product that was making claims about use by asthmatics and those with allergies.
The result was the “asthma and allergy friendly certification programme”, a registered trademark for the company. A product that could pass all the tests and prove efficacy would receive the asthma and allergy friendly certification mark, akin to other programmes such as Fair Trade certification or the Wool Mark.
There was no comparable programme that could work at the deep level of science as applied by Allergy Standards Ltd but the company also needed a way to build brand awareness for its cert mark, a way to reach out to large numbers of consumers.
This it did by contacting the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and with them creating the first set of scientific standards for asthmatic consumer products. The foundation has on its books about 60 million Americans affected by asthma and allergies and the foundation agreed to endorse the certification programme provided by the company.
Large companies immediately saw the benefit in the cert programme and many firms have signed up, big names such as Dyson, LG, 3M, Proctor and Gamble, Mercedes, DeLonghi, Crown paints, Hollander and Welspun, McKeon says.
It is no small matter for a company to get one of its products certified as the standards set down for a fabric or pillow or appliance are very strict. “There is a process we run where we do a very extensive literature review. We then boil these down to provisional standards,” he says.
The company has a lab in Dublin and the firm also uses subcontract labs in the US and Switzerland.
The provisional standards are sent through three independent peer reviews including an independent medical review. The standards are refined and eventually emerge for consideration by the foundation or other US national patient organisation.
The process has proved of benefit to the company, the foundation and the general public who now have a way to sort out which products will help them. The company has established 40 standards and there are now thousands of products that carry the asthma and allergy friendly cert mark, McKeon says. The company has products with the cert on all continents.
Dr McKeon praised the American Chamber Ireland and Royal Irish academy, saying it was a “great morale boost” for the company. “When you are in the trenches fighting it is great to see someone validates what you are doing. The academy’s involvement was also important. “It shows there is an academic rigour to this.”