Like much of the rest of the world, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has just about had it with mask-induced acne and eczema, glasses fog, indecipherable conversations and stifled breathing.
In a last-ditch attempt to solve these societal ills, HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority—known as BARDA, the specialized agency that typically takes on viral outbreaks, bioterrorist attacks and nuclear incidents—has put out the call for new mask designs that battle both discomfort and coronavirus-carrying droplets, with $500,000 in prizes.
With help from the equipment-certifying National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the “Mask Innovation Challenge” is now accepting submissions for what can only be described as a miracle in face mask form.
They must be cheap and simple to mass-produce, while also being widely accessible and effective in blocking transmission of COVID-19. Bonus points go to those that solve the challenges of unreadable facial expressions, intelligible speech, incompatibility with glasses, irritating contact dermatitis, discomfort caused by prolonged wear and the feeling of being suffocated.
After the submission period closes April 21, the creative geniuses found to have invented “tomorrow’s mask” will move on to a “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition. Up to 10 finalists will receive up to $10,000 each, plus access to BARDA’s scientific expertise to build their prototypes.
Those finalists will then advance to testing in NIOSH labs, and up to five of the best designs will split a $400,000 grand prize.
“We know that properly and consistently worn face masks help reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory infections, but many people are reluctant to wear them for a variety of reasons,” Nikki Bratcher-Bowman, HHS’ acting assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said in a release. “With this mask challenge, we want to get people across the country involved in developing new masks that are both effective and comfortable.”
Crowdsourcing has been a popular method for creating masks that people will actually wear. In December, the XPrize Foundation closed a similar competition, which called on inventors between the ages of 15 and 24 to design “the next generation of face masks.”
The winning design, which was awarded $500,000 and was designed by a team of students from Arizona State University, features adjustable elastic straps around the ears and chin, an outer mesh layer that can be customized with different colors and patterns, and a dual-chamber design separating exhaled air from the face, preventing fogging and overheating.