In the smoky haze of the Puget Sound region last summer, Aaron Ansel and Andrew Enke looked at the unhealthy air quality and high demand for pollution masks. What they saw was an e-commerce opportunity in what is expected to remain a growing market for years to come.

“For me, that was the start of it,” Enke said, “and we had some college friends that visited us during the summer season.”

Those friends had traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, and then fled the wildfire smoke, landing in Seattle, where conditions were not much better. They spent most of their time indoors with their two small children, Enke said.

Regionally, stores struggled to keep popular N95 respirator masks in stock, and the same issue occurred in California last year.

After half a year of groundwork, Ansel and Enke launched Puraka Pollution Masks nationwide this month, offering a subscription-based service that keeps customers stocked up on air filters for their pollution masks and updated on the air quality in their area.

“We wanted to establish ourselves early on as a company that is concerned with your overall well being and takes care of that for you,” Ansel said.

An annual subscription costs $2 a month, plus $1 per family member, meaning a household of five would pay $7 monthly. There is also a month-to-month option.

“First of all, the goal is to be providing value-added services all year, and the Camp Fire was a good example of a time of year when people don’t expect wildfire,” Ansel said.

Enke said his church assembled aid packages for the victims of the Camp Fire, which was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, burning more than 150,000 acres and destroying more than 18,000 buildings last November.

Enke said they tested a number of products, but are keeping the cost of Puraka low by focusing on function over fashion. Subscribers first receive their no-frills cotton masks and four PM 2.5 filters. The masks are washable, but require air filters. They currently offer a standard mask for adults and one for children, which has a panda on its exhalation valve. If Puraka receives enough preorders, Enke said, they may consider adding more colors.

“We want to see the market’s response,” he said. “We want to see the customers’ response.”

Rather than add to their overhead with a mobile app, they created a Smoke Signal SMS alert system. If the air quality index (AQI) for a subscriber’s area is poor, they will receive a text notification reminding them to wear their pollution mask. They’ve mapped out weather stations, and track AQI based on each customer and their zip code, which is what triggers a Smoke Signal alert, Enke said. Puraka’s service is also customized to its subscribers, and takes into account the ages and health conditions of each household member, such as those who are older, pregnant, or have a respiratory or heart issue.

“One thing we are not is a physician,” Enke said. “We’re not here to diagnose. We’re here to provide a filter.”

Puraka’s backend system will also subtract a filter from the subscriber’s account each time an alert is issued, assuming one has been used as recommended.

“Once you fall below four [filters], you automatically get a new one,” Ansel said.

There is no additional charge to customers for replenishing their filter supplies, and Puraka has four distribution centers set up between the West and East Coast: Tacoma, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Chicago. Ansel said they have about 25,000 air filters on hand, and that number could increase to a million over time, depending on subscriptions and service demands.

Enke and Ansel are also using data and research to keep Puraka’s website updated with useful information about air quality issues and preparedness, which is a resource center available to anyone, even if they don’t end up subscribing to their service.

While last year’s devastating wildfire season was the impetus for starting Puraka — which means inhalation in Sanskrit — Enke said there are other factors, such as industrial and vehicular pollution, that contribute to poor air quality, and not just during the summer. Enke grew up in Salt Lake City, he said, and  cold fronts can keep pollutants in the air longer.

If the startup proves to be profitable, Ansel and Enke said they want to invest a portion of their revenue in philanthropic endeavors that help improve air quality, such as supporting better forest management practices. If an area like Paradise, California is ravaged by a massive wildfire, Enke said Puraka would also want to help by donating masks and filters to those most impacted.

“We’d love it if this was something that wasn’t an issue in five years and this wasn’t needed,” Ansel said, adding they would likely move on to another venture in that case.

A North American Seasonal Fire Assessment and Outlook report issued in early June predicts the region is nearing its peak fire season.

“Wildfire activity should begin to increase by late month as peak of the fire season begins to arrive as July and August approach,” according to the report. “As is the case with the lower elevation fuels, the high elevation heavy fuels will also experience a delayed entry into the season except along the Canadian Border in Washington State where overall dryness will lead to an average start with a potential for above normal activity.”

The Puraka cofounders both work at Amazon, Ansel as a senior compliance manager, and Enke as an import operations product manager. They’re keeping their day jobs for now, they said, and are looking forward to seeing how Puraka does this summer.

Find out more at