July 12, 2022 — Sitting at his desk in Sea Girt, NJ, John Schwind is eager to demonstrate his ReadiMask 365. He holds what looks like a white sheet of memo paper, peels off a protective liner, and first sticks the mask for his nose. He slides his fingers over his face, cheeks and chin, sealing the mask and then demonstrating how easy it is to talk with him in place.
The mask’s medical adhesive adheres directly to the face, without causing rashes, he said. He does not let the air pass and does not fog up his glasses. It’s strapless, so it won’t hurt her ears and make them stick out.
This fall, Schwind, CEO of Global Safety First, hopes to take home $150,000 as one of two top winners in the federal Mask Innovation Challenge. He made it to the top 10 but realizes he still has a ton of competition.
After the challenge launched in late 2021, nearly 1,500 submissions were received, says Kumiko Lippold, PhD, health scientist and head of the Mask Innovation Challenge. The challenge is managed by Lippold and others at the Division of Research, Innovation, and Enterprise (DRIVe), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Humanities’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Social services.
Like the rest of us, Lippold knows that masks are in desperate need of a makeover. The challenge is to inspire and design comfortable masks, even worn for a long time, and which offer excellent protection. The goal is not only to help us get through this pandemic, but also future pandemics and other public health emergencies. “We are focused on building masks for the next pandemic, the next wildfires,” she says.
The project is a partnership between BARDA’s DRIVe, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
While NIOSH is a challenge partner, giving feedback to mask developers, “the mask challenge is entirely separate from NIOSH’s approval process,” Lippold says. Companies can then seek NIOSH approval on their own, later, if they wish. The agency only certifies masks and respirators.
Preview of upcoming masks
“We’ve seen some really amazing things,” Lippold said of the new models. She didn’t want to play favorites, so she previewed the innovations. Some designs have transparent materials or partially transparent materials, so facial expressions can be read. “We’ve also seen some really unique bio-based materials derived from natural products. We saw sensors in some.
A mask model has origami folds, which increase the overall surface area and breathing area. Some 3D-printed masks promise a custom fit and take into account whether a person’s nose bridge is low or high.
And the finalists are…
ReadiMask 365: “I can wear it all day,” Schwind said of her new design. It has a nanofiber filter and is flexible. Besides the BARDA challenge one, the company has other ReadiMasks in the market. “The most important thing is comfort,” he says. “Second, protection. If they don’t feel like they have a good seal, users don’t have confidence in the mask.
It offers different sizes of ReadiMasks, from small sizes designed for women with smaller faces to extra-large, “for NFL linemen”.
ClearMask: “We are the original clear mask,” says Aaron Hsu, CEO and co-founder of ClearMask in Baltimore. The company started in 2017 and the clear design was inspired by a company co-founder who is deaf. She was scheduled for surgery and her sign language interpreter failed to show up, leaving her to try to communicate in the operating room with masked healthcare providers. There were no transparent masks available at the time, Hsu says.
“Being able to work with BARDA and get their wisdom is invaluable,” he says.
Hsu thinks masks are here to stay, at least for some. “I think a certain percentage of the population will continue to wear them regardless.” He predicts that health care facilities will become stricter about wearing masks.
“Even now, even when you walk into a hospital, you might have to wear a mask,” he says, even as a visitor. His company’s masks are easy to adjust and are secured around the head, so your ears don’t hurt, he says.
Air 4C: The BreSafe transparent mask is semi-transparent and is made of a nanomaterial that offers high levels of filtration and breathability with some transparency.
Air99: Based on the principles of origami, the Arigami mask is intended to improve fit, breathability and aesthetics over existing masks. “Airgami fits better, works better and looks better,” says company spokesperson Min Xiao. “It won’t fall out of the nose or crumble into the mouth, and the glasses will fog up less,” she says. Voices are less muffled. It’s also reusable, rinseable, and can be hot-sanitized, she says. It was released in November 2020.
Air Flo Laboratories: Flo Mask Pro, like the company’s other designs, performed more than 100 3D facial scans across many ethnicities to produce a better fit, says Kevin Ngo, its creator. For adult masks, two nose bridge sizes are offered. And users can choose a Pro filter, with 99% filtration, or an Everyday, which is supposed to be much more breathable than other masks. “Our silicone seal is incredibly soft and gentle on the skin,” says Ngo. “In addition, we offer indentations for the lenses, which prevent any fogging.” The company began shipping in May; several thousand masks are currently in use, Ngo said.
Georgetown University: This team’s smart mask is made of metal foams that can be cleaned and reused.
Levi Strauss & Co.: The mask form can be crafted by any base crafting factory. It aims to activate the apparel supply chain as another source of low-cost, high-performance masks.
Matregenix: This mask, made of a transparent nanofiber, allows easy communication while having high filtration.
SEAL Lab: The SINEW mask stands for Smart, Individualized, Near-Face, Extended Wear. The mask used technology to overcome the shortcomings of traditional respirators, with the same degree of protection. It does not come into contact with the wearer’s facial skin.
Stay safe now: A Harvard University team has developed Crystal Guard, a reusable and cost-effective transparent mask. Its developers say it’s supposed to be especially useful for essential workers, teachers and others who need to communicate to do their jobs.
“From our perspective, our goal with the mask challenge was not to replace the N95 respirator,” Lippold says. NIOSH-certified N95 masks are valuable and protect people in high-risk environments. “With the mask challenge, our goal was really to provide the public with a comparable alternative that really addresses their specific level of risk.” Working in a health care setting carries a different risk, she says, than going to the grocery store.
“A common complaint with the N95 is that they are very uncomfortable.” This is a major barrier to compliance, “and we wanted to close that gap. We did not directly compare [the entries] to an N95,” she says, although their tests were similar to NIOSH’s. A number of finalists say they will seek NIOSH approval, she said.
In the meantime, some of the finalists’ masks are on sale. Air Flo Labs, for example, has its Flo Mask Pro for sale online, noting that BARDA allowed it to publish NIOSH and NIST test results.
Go from 1500 to 10
In the first phase of the challenge, Lippold says, “The goal was to engage as wide an audience as possible.” With the second phase, the bar has been set a little higher. Instead of just submitting ideas on paper, companies had to submit prototypes for lab testing. “We received about 80 submissions,” she says.
Those 80 were narrowed down to 10 finalists. Teams had sent out prototypes and experts, including those from NIOSH and NIST, evaluated them, sometimes looking at multiple copies of the masks. Experts looked at how air-filtering the masks were, how breathable they were, and other data. Once feedback was given to the mask companies, they entered a period of redesign. “Scientists can take that data and basically improve those prototypes,” Lippold says.
The final round of testing will take place in September and the winners will be announced in the fall. This opportunity has allowed companies to put their products through tests they might not otherwise have been able to get, she says.