The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently announced the winners of the Mask Innovation Challenge, an initiative led by the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) that also involved the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The challenge called on inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs to design face masks that effectively reduce exposure to respiratory threats, including COVID-19.
- Air99’s Airgami mask, based on origami principles to improve fit, breathability, and aesthetics.
- Global Safety First’s ReadiMask 365, a strapless mask featuring a three-layer, composite nano-fiber filter and hypo-allergenic adhesive to adhere to the wearer’s face.
The runners-up (who received $50,000 each in prize money) included:
- Air Flo Labs’ Flo Mask Pro, a reusable mask with two face shape options and two levels of filtration for a tailored and protected fit. Users can switch out parts of the mask and filter to meet their specific needs.
- Levi Strauss & Co.’s mask, which has a simplified design to enable the rapid production of highly effective, low-cost masks through alternative supply channels.
Launching a Mission to Catalyze Mask innovation
In launching the Mask Innovation Challenge in 2021, BARDA and other key partners called on inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs to design masks that provided both improved comfort and superior filtration to reduce exposures to a variety of respiratory threats, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Its overall goal was to support the development of evidence-based and scientifically validated mask designs that could be used during future pandemics and public health emergencies, as well as everyday use, to help reduce people’s exposure to a variety of respiratory threats, such as allergy season, wildfire smoke, pollution, seasonal flu, and other infectious diseases.
Phase 1 of the Mask Innovation Challenge sought great ideas on paper for next generation masks and face barrier covering concepts. Overall, phase 1 received nearly 1,500 mask design submissions from across the US. Ultimately, 10 winners were selected, who each received $10,000.
Phase 2 of the challenge focused on accelerating the development of masks that were designed to reduce individuals’ exposure to airborne hazards. To achieve this, Phase 2 specified ambitious performance criteria in the Moonshot Target Product Profile (TPP). These criteria prioritized high-filtration efficiency, breathability, comfort, and other unique factors to address common barriers to mask wearing.
This final, second phase of the competition was designed to increase the competitors’ access to federal government respiratory protection experts at NIOSH and NIST laboratories during the prototyping process and enable the rapid development of promising products that could be taken to market.
Breaking Down Barriers and Putting Human-Centered Designs to the Test
The road to a good design – starting from an idea on paper, moving to prototype, and then to a marketable product – can be long and winding. Access to testing facilities and equipment can be limited, if not inaccessible, and costs may be prohibitive, especially for small businesses and startups. Phase 2 of the Mask Innovation Challenge sought to break down those barriers by enabling access to NIOSH and NIST facilities and subject matter experts that provided finalist teams with subject matter expertise and the critical laboratory testing needed to assess and understand filtration efficiency, breathability, fit, and simulated comfort.
Following the announcement of the 10 finalists in June 2022 and a round of initial laboratory testing at NIOSH and NIST, the 10 teams resubmitted their reimagined prototypes for the final round of testing during the Final Mask Face-Off in September 2022. The masks were re-evaluated for their performance in filtration efficiency and breathability testing, using visualization imaging to reassess fit and function, advanced headform fit evaluation, simulated conform using a sweating thermal manakin.