And the winners are … Feds award $400K for the most innovative masks

Four companies will share $400,000 in prize money from the Mask Innovation Challenge, a federally-sponsored competition that encourages companies to develop masks that are comfortable and provide excellent protection — even after long periods of use. The goal: to get us through not only this pandemic and future pandemics, but also other public health emergencies like wildfires.

Airgami from Air99

Two companies — Air99, LLC, which makes the Airgami mask, and Global Safety First, LLC, which makes the ReadiMask 365 — were given $150,000 each to spend as they see fit, said health scientist Kumiko Lippold, PhD, MPH. with BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) and the administrator of the Mask Innovation Challenge.

Two others – Air Flo Labs, LLC’s FloMask Pro, and Levi Strauss & Co. mask that uses everyday sewing skills for rapid production — are runners-up, each taking home $50,000.

Winners will be announced at BARDA Industry Day, a virtual event held today and tomorrow.

FloMask Pro by AirFlo Labs

The project is a collaboration between BARDA’s DRIVe (Division of Research, Innovation and Projects), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Although NIOSH is a partner in the challenge and has provided feedback to mask designers, the competition is completely separate from the NIOSH approval process.

Almost 1,500 initial submissions entered the three-phase challenge in 2021. That number rose to 80 in the second phase, when companies had to submit prototypes for laboratory testing. The 80 were reduced to 10 finalists and finally two winners and two runners-up were chosen.

Levi Strauss & Co. mask

Lippold listed the winning details about the masks:

  • Airgami counters high filtration efficiency with breathability and comfort.

  • The ReadiMask 365 has good filtration efficiency, she said, and its flat design makes it good for emergency storage.

  • Among the FloMask Pro’s unique features, Lippold said, is a durable frame and the ability to embroider the filter materials. You can also replace all parts of the mask.

  • The Levi Strauss design is easy to manufacture. “Levi, in theory, can leverage their global manufacturing infrastructure so they can produce these high-performance, comfortable masks,” she said.

Three of the masks are already on the commercial market (Airgami, ReadiMask and FloMask.)

Winner’s response

ReadiMask365 from Global Safety First

John Schwind, CEO of Global Safety First LLC, which makes the ReadiMask 365, said he was “a little surprised” by the win, but notes that his mask “fits everyone” and stores well and tightly. He can fit 30,000 masks on a pallet, he said. It is also NIOSH N95 certified.

What’s next for ReadiMask? “Our hope is that we’ll have some interaction with government agencies, because there’s a tremendous opportunity for them to get into strategic national inventory,” Schwind said.

Richard Gordon, PhD, and his wife, Min Xiao, PhD, designed Airgami based on origami principles. It is intended to improve fit, breathability and aesthetics over existing masks.

Company co-founders Gordon and Xiao invented the mask to protect their young son, now 15, from air pollution. When they heard the news, Xiao said, “We were happy but not surprised.” Gordon added: “We knew we had a very good product on our hands.”

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