And the Winners Are…Feds Award $400K for Most Innovative Masks

Four companies will share $400,000 in prize money from the Mask Innovation Challenge, a federal government-sponsored competition that encouraged companies to develop masks that are comfortable and provide excellent protection — even after long wear. The aim: to get us through not just this and future pandemics, but also other public health emergencies such as wildfires.

Airgami by Air99

Two companies — Air99, LLC, which produces the Airgami mask, and Global Safety First, LLC, which makes the ReadiMask 365, got the top prizes of $150,000 each, to spend as they wish, said Kumiko Lippold, PhD, MPH a health scientist with BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) and manager of the Mask Innovation Challenge.

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

The winners are being announced at the BARDA Industry Day, a virtual event held  today and tomorrow.

FloMask Pro by AirFlo Labs

The project is a partnership among BARDA’s DRIVe (Division of Research, Innovation, and Ventures), 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 gave feedback to mask developers, the contest is entirely separate from the NIOSH approval process.

Nearly 1500 original submissions entered the three-phase challenge in 2021. That number was winnowed to 80 by the second phase, when companies had to submit prototypes for lab testing. Those 80 were reduced to 10 finalists and finally, the two winners and the two runners-up were chosen.

Levi Strauss & Co. mask

Lippold listed the winning details of the masks:

  • The Airgami balances high-filtration efficiency with breathability and comfort.

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

  • Among the unique features of FloMask Pro, Lippold said, is a durable frame and the ability to stitch out the filter materials. You can also change out all the 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-performing, comfortable masks,” she said.

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

Winners’ Reactions

ReadiMask365 by Global Safety First

John Schwind, CEO of Global Safety First LLC, which makes the ReadiMask 365, said he was “a little surprised” about winning but notes that his mask “fits everybody” and stores well and compactly. 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 we have some interaction with government agencies, because there is tremendous opportunity for these to end up in the strategic national stockpile,” Schwind said.

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

Co-founders of the company, 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 pleased but not surprised.” Added Gordon: “We knew we had a really good product on our hands.”

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