Americans are having a tough time putting on masks. It's become a politically divisive accessory that symbolizes care to some, conspiracy to others. All this has distracted many devotees from a more scientific conversation that's equally important: The quality of our masks matters, and our supply chain isn't ready to support a safe reopening.
Sabrina Paseman and Megan Duong realized this—and started working on a technical solution to address it—when they were coordinating N95 collection for local hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two women had both recently left jobs at Apple, and started gathering masks full-time, collecting thousands, only to learn that covers about a day or two in a large hospital.
The problem, as they came to see it, is that even hospitals are facing shortages of N95 masks, but if the general public continues to wear less protective surgical masks or cloth masks, hospitals will keep being flooded with new cases.
So Paseman started prototyping a product intended for everyone outside hospital settings. The Essential Brace, live on Kickstarter now, is a reusable silicone band that slips over surgical masks to create a seal comparable to N95s. Paseman and Duong hope that, if more people use the Essential Brace and surgical masks, leaving N95s for hospitals, we can all get through the pandemic more safely and efficiently.
A family endeavor
The Duong family has three siblings. Megan's sister is married to an ER doctor at one of the Bay Area's hardest-hit hospitals. Megan's brother is engaged to Paseman. So within a few weeks of shutdown, the family was all very invested in sourcing N95s.
"We were calling warehouses. We called every paint store. We called every hardware store. We just knew N95 masks were really, really hard to access," says Duong. "And we started looking overseas, and it was just not a safe alternative, because it wasn't properly vetted in terms of certification. We were acting as this middleman for hospitals, which are very red taped. It just was not a sustainable solution."
Fix The Mask's founders Sabrina Paseman and Megan Duong.
But Paseman, with her masters degree in mechanical engineering and years of experience designing and manufacturing Macs, was well-suited to prototype alternatives. Via her soon-to-be brother-in-law, she had the insight that hospitals had plenty of unused surgical masks, but N95s are favored because they fully seal around all edges.
"From an engineering standpoint, after looking into what an N95 mask is, it's literally just a sealed filter that goes against your face," Paseman says. "It's a very, very basic engineering thing. And so my thought was, if there are other filters out there, why can't we just seal them? And that is the concept we started with. During our brainstorm, [collaborator] Simon Lancaster kept acting out a seal that pressed around the nose, mouth, and chin, and we came up with the idea for the mask brace that night."
Prototyping human-centered design in lockdown
Creating a new product in a global pandemic brought on unexpected challenges. For one thing, Paseman had limited supplies to work with—her first brace prototype was made of rubber bands.
She tested her next iterations mostly on her own face. "I have the smallest nose in the world," she says, and this was clearly a problem for troubleshooting one of the most important product features—preventing the much maligned glasses fog. But she did her research, and found that the CDC released a dataset of 5,000 different face shapes averaged down into five common shapes. She got them 3D printed and started using them to test her prototypes. "Those are my friends that I use for prototyping," she says, "I even named them."
Paseman named her "friends" Louie, Lonnie, Mervin, and Samantha, inspired by the CDC's names: "Large, Long Narrow, Medium, and Small"
"Finding a way to make the nose cushion work on a bunch of different faces, have it be comfortable and still mass-manufacturable, was really difficult," Paseman says. "Most other solutions solve it with a metal band, which doesn't work well, or a 3D printed contour, which isn't mass producible, or physical foam cushion, which isn't easily washable. Also, adding another piece makes it more complicated to produce. I knew I had to integrate it into a single piece." The key innovation was splitting the nose cushion into individual elements, something she and her dad, Bill Paseman, brainstormed together.
The built-in silicon nose cushion seals masks tight—and prevents fogged up glasses.
Once that prototype was looking promising, she tested it on some family members with the PortaCount Pro, a system used to test N95 fit, and confirmed that it actually does work on various face shapes. Now, she's excited that she's connected with Loren Bast of Bainbridge Protects, a group that's been offering free fit testing to people like dentists, teachers, and firefighters who don't work in hospitals but are still certainly frontline workers. They've been testing the Essential Mask Brace alongside N95s and other solutions.
Easing the stressed supply chain
The beauty of this brace solution is that it makes the most efficient use of the melt-blown fabric found in both N95s and surgical masks.
"The issue with the global mask supply is the fact that there's a shortage of melt-blown fabric, which is the center layer inside of these surgical masks as well as the center layer inside of an N95," Paseman explains. "And that special fabric material is really hard to make, because it basically involves really, really high-pressure molten plastic being shot out into giant sheets. There can be lots of issues with clumping, non-uniformity of the material, or densities being off. And all of those things matter for how good the quality of the material is."
"Right at the start of this pandemic, lots of people were trying to bring up melt-blown fabric lines", she says, "and it's really hard to do it properly. I think there are less than 10 manufacturers across the world that really know how to do it properly. And none of them want to share the secret because they'd lose all of their market capital."
The way that N95s are cut makes them a less efficient use of this extremely limited resource, so, while they're important to have available for ease of use in hospitals, the more people we can get wearing braced surgical masks, the more protection there is to go around. It significantly brings down the cost per wear, too.
Working around the establishment
Their solution is elegant, but not certified. Though Paseman has tested the product with a methodology similar to what official certification labs use—and found surgical masks with her braces to be as much as 10x more effective than generic cloth masks from Amazon—FDA-certified labs are too busy or too expensive to sign off on the product.
That's part of why they've meticulously documented their process and aimed to serve the frontline workers who need protection and have basically no access to N95s now—dentists, hair stylists, grocery stockers, etc.
"We realized over time, working with hospitals, there's a lot of red tape," Duong says. "It's a really bureaucratic system. I started thinking of our campaign kind of like the Andrew Yang campaign.
"He was an interesting candidate because he was an unconventional politician. Yang somehow managed to appeal to Elon Musk and all these intellectual influencers and managed to make quite a splash in a very short period of time. I was curious how he did it. So I reached out to his campaign team to ask how they approached this similar situation of having a solution but needing to convince people to listen to us," Duong says.
"Their response was, 'We did a bottom-up strategy, you need to convince everyone else. Eventually you'll impact the healthcare system.' We began observing hospitals and learned that the people who were being hit disproportionately hard from the pandemic were essential workers, communities of color, and underserved communities. It didn't sit well with us. So we focused on getting PPE into the hands of the people that need it the most. The people who are also in a hazardous situation outside of a hospital setting."
A pivot from Silicon Valley
"We always believed in creating a solution that's for everyone," Duong says. And she sees that as a significant difference from what she's used to doing at tech companies like Apple.
"I talk to a lot of startups, and many times I hear about this brilliant solution they have built but lack clarity on their purpose or mission that drives their company and community forward. Defining your north star is so important ," she says. "Because our mission is to make safe masks accessible to everyone, our journey began as a DIY and an open-source solution so that people could make a brace at home. By making our design open, we were able to get data, grow with communities who don't have access to N95 masks, and get a lot of feedback to improve the design."
"Other companies hide all of the back workings of how they made the secret sauce," Paseman says. "But for us, our mission is so transparent. We basically have shown every step of the work that got us to this solution and made it available to anyone who wants to join our community. People can see that we're not in this to make large swaths of money. We're doing it because we all want to get out of this pandemic together. Everyone needs this protection in order for us to actually get back to life as normal."