Is Gainesville up for a face mask design challenge?

Couple wearing masks
Couple wearing masks
Perfect Wave via Shutterstock

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is offering $500,000 in prizes for top entries in Mask Innovation Challenge with marching orders for entrants to build tomorrow’s mask.

The contest description states that properly worn masks can provide protection to wearers, but throughout the COVID-19 pandemic various barriers have kept some people from wearing them. 

“These barriers include issues such as contact dermatitis with prolonged wear, physical discomfort, fogging of eyeglasses, and difficulty communicating,” according to the statement. “In addition, many masks that are currently available tout unconfirmed protective capabilities that lack scientific evidence to support such claims. Overall, there is a need to develop better designs, materials, and technologies that are more acceptable to wearers and that ensure quantified measures of performance.”

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Gainesville residents joined efforts early on in the pandemic to help solve the face mask shortage problem through the creation of a Facebook group for mask makers. A network of people stepped in to sew reusable face masks for medical staff and later residents.

In late March, it was Dr. Bruce Spiess, a UF Health anesthesiologist, who designed a mask using a material that is in abundant supply in hospitals across the United States and the world. Spiess discovered that the surgical wrap used to keep instruments sterile could be saved after it was removed from instrument trays and recycled into masks. When two layers of the material are put together, the material rating becomes N99 which is higher protection than the N95 masks.

From there, the idea spread through social media groups set up all over the world to collect the material to be sewn into face masks.

In the NHS’ Building Tomorrow’s Mask challenge in partnership with the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), contestants are being asked to “improve the comfort, utility, and protective capabilities of products that are worn during day-to-day activities by the general public when physical distancing is not possible. This competition is designed to support the development of mask designs that meet defined performance standards while also overcoming barriers to use.”

The outcome for the design selected will be “to develop innovative and effective designs for mass-producible, low-cost-per-use devices to be worn by the general public in order to provide protection from respiratory disease pathogens,” the contest description states.

The contest has two phases and may later have a third.

In Phase 1, the design phase, contestants submit their concept for a redesigned mask. Up to 40 regional winners will be selected from those submissions to take part in the DRIVe Accelerator Network Product Pitch Competition. A panel of judges will listen to the pitches and then select up to 10 designs that will be awarded up to $10,000 each to create a prototype of their concept.

In Phase 2, known as the Proof-of-Concept, finalists will submit their designs in response to a scenario. Those finalists will then be invited to submit prototypes for proof-of-concept testing by NIOSH laboratories and other partner laboratories, according to the challenge rules.

The deadline for Phase 1 is 5 p.m. on April 21. The site for submitting a design requires participants to create an account and submit the necessary responses.

Organizers will consider the first 250 submissions first, and then BARDA may choose to review additional submissions at its own discretion. A complete submission packet will include a cover page, proposed design and a schematic. Judging criteria according to the BARDA will be based on technological feasibility, innovation, barriers and the overall compelling solution.

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