Carnegie Mellon University
November 03, 2022

Darren Riley Honored as Tartan Entrepreneur

By Amanda S.F. Hartle

During November’s National Entrepreneurship Month, CMU is celebrating the Tartan entrepreneurs around the world who are bringing groundbreaking ideas to market and building successful startup businesses.

"Carnegie Mellon offers incredible support to our students, faculty and alumni startups that help set them up for entrepreneurial success,” says Dave Mawhinney, executive director of CMU’s Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship and associate teaching professor of entrepreneurship. “We are proud that Carnegie Mellon is recognized as one of the top entrepreneurial universities in the world today and even prouder of the achievements and accomplishments of our Tartan founders."

Better Breathing Environments for All

CEO and co-founder of JustAir SolutionsDarren Riley was in his mid-20s when he developed asthma after moving to one of the most polluted ZIP codes in the United States.

His diagnosis showed him how much the environment in which we exist and the air we breathe influences our quality of life.

So he launched JustAir — combining his lived experiences as a Black man with air pollution-related health issues and his Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences information systems degree.

The company’s small sensors monitor the air we breathe at the neighborhood level, map pollutants, magnify air quality disparities from one zip code to the next and visualize the activities and trends that drive an area’s air quality. 

“With our monitors and insight tools, communities can more accurately identify sources of pollutants,” Darren, who graduated in 2014, says. “They can then develop data-driven solutions to protect the breathing environment for our most vulnerable groups.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, urban neighborhoods of color are disproportionately affected by poor air quality — a stark reality that resonated with Darren in summer 2020.  

“When George Floyd was murdered, I became more keen on this space and committed to using my technical skills to move the needle on systemic environmental justice issues impacting communities of color.” 

A total of 11 JustAir sensors are installed throughout Grand Rapids, Michigan. The company’s sensors in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, which has the highest non-white population in the city, recorded many more unhealthy days than the one near the city’s previous lone monitor required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Thanks to JustAir, the community has information they can use to create a better breathing environment for all.

JustAir is looking to expand into other cities while also building upon the company’s community collaboration efforts. Soon, they’ll also be piloting new pollution source detection and traffic impact tools.

Darren credits his entrepreneurial path to his time at CMU where he was also a member of the basketball team. 

“While success as an entrepreneur has a degree of luck to it, CMU trained me to view entrepreneurship as a practice like a sport where you learn through trial and error in order to mitigate the risk of future uncertainty.”

Darren says he knows his journey as an underrepresented founder is “not traditional,” but he finds it incredibly rewarding. 

“You’re forced to be more creative with your approach to things such as access to capital and markets,” he says. “This challenge is also my favorite part of the journey. I’m my full self in my work. I engage with the community on their terms, and most of all, I work on a problem that I care about deeply.” 

The CMU Tech & Entrepreneurship group connects the CMU community, alumni and students, to build an entrepreneurial culture and provide resources for the community to succeed. To date, the CMU community has launched more than 400 startups and created more than 152 spinoff companies. The Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship supports programs specifically designed to help CMU alumni get customers, talent and investment. These include VentureBridge, the CMU Tech & Entrepreneurship Alumni Group and 99Tartans.

Read about other CMU entrepreneurs