NOBIC advances mask innovation through partnerships with BARDA DRIVe Accelerator Network

While it’s tempting to throw out our old masks now that the CDC has rolled back mask requirements for those fully vaccinated, the reality is that these protective face coverings continue to be a vital part of preventing disease transmission. New variants of the virus are spreading rapidly, and the global population has had limited access to vaccines.

N95 masks and other types of face barriers have reduced the spread of COVID-19, but we all know there are limitations in mask fit, function, and access. New respiratory viruses and health security threats may emerge in the future and the time to prepare is right now. To address this pressing need for mask innovation, the New Orleans BioInnovation Center has partnered with multiple entities across the US to facilitate advancements in the consumer mask market.

To accelerate the development of the next generation of masks, Biomedical Advanced Research Development Authority (BARDA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently launched the $500,000 Mask Innovation Challenge:  Building Tomorrow’s Mask.  The goal of the challenge is to improve the comfort, utility, and protective capabilities of products worn by the general public to provide protection against respiratory disease pathogens.

The competition began in April 2021, and 1448 mask designs were submitted by the public for evaluation. The submissions were screened for their technological feasibility, innovation, and overall merit by a panel of more than 80 judges.  A total of 263 mask designs were selected for consideration in phase I of the competition, and the top 40 mask teams advanced to regional pitch competitions hosted by the BARDA DRIVe Accelerator Network.

NOBIC partnered with BARDA and neighboring DRIVe accelerators, Biolocity (Atlanta, GA) and First Flight Venture Center (Research Triangle Park, NC), to host the Southeast Regional Mask Innovation Challenge on May 25.  Using a rapid pitch format, 10 of the top teams presented their masks to a panel of expert judges and received feedback on their designs.

“The New Orleans BioInnovation Center is excited to partner with BARDA and the national health-security community on the Mask Innovation Challenge. We are actively sourcing and developing innovative and effective designs for mass-producible, low-cost-per-use devices. Everyone can appreciate a coordinated attempt to build a better mask to be used to protect citizens in the event of another outbreak or respiratory disease scare,” said Kris Khalil, Executive Director of the New Orleans BioInnovation Center.

In parallel to the Southeast Regional event NOBIC hosted with Biolocity and First Flight Venture Center, ten additional DRIVe accelerators partnered to host the Mid-Atlantic, Mid-West, and West Coast regional events.  Collectively, these four virtual challenges drew a crowd of more than 700 spectators from around the world, demonstrating widespread enthusiasm for mask innovation and health security.

M2D2 hosted the Mask Innovation Challenge Awards Ceremony on June 24 and spotlighted the tremendous efforts of ten winning teams.  Dr. Gary Bisbrow, Director of BARDA, remarked that “the competition was fierce,” and he applauded the innovative solutions that were put forward.  Dr. Sandeep Patel, Director of DRIVe, stated that “the entire population can empathize with this experience [of relying on masks]” and he congratulated the efforts of the winning teams.

The phase I winners are BreSafeTM Transparent Mask (4C Air, Inc), The Makery Mask (The Makery Hilo), Amazon PerfectFit Mask (Amazon), Project: Veil (Levi Strauss & Co.), PaciMask (PaciMask, LLC), Reusable smart face masks (Georgetown University), AtmoBlue v2 (AtmoBlue, Inc.), Rechargeable Electrostatic Capacity Mask (RECm), Flo Mask (Air Flo Labs, LLC), and Airgami® Mask (Air99, LLC).  Each winning team will receive $10,000 to develop a prototype of their concept.  The BARDA DRIVe Accelerator Network will provide wrap-around support to these companies as they work to bring their innovative masks to market.

Phase II of the challenge will launch in Fall 2021 with a total prize purse of $400,000.  Finalists will be invited to submit prototypes for proof-of-concept testing by NIOSH laboratories and other partner laboratories.

Follow BARDA and NOBIC on social media for updates about the Mask Innovation Challenge and to discover other exciting opportunities to advance health security.