HHS launches $500,000 contest for design of new, effective, comfortable masks for general public use

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched an innovation challenge competition today encouraging American inventors to aid the nation’s COVID-19 response by designing effective, comfortable face masks for personal use that resolve the common concerns people have about wearing masks. The contest taps into the nation’s creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to help curb the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“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,” said Nikki Bratcher-Bowman, HHS acting Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). “With this mask challenge, we want to get people across the country involved in developing new masks that are both effective and comfortable. This will help us control COVID-19 and be better prepared for future public health emergencies.”

Common reasons for not wearing a mask or not wearing a mask tightly over the nose and mouth include breathability, comfort, uncertainty about effectiveness, and fogged glasses; people in the disability community also have expressed concerns such as the inability to read facial expressions, difficulty speaking through the face covering, and difficulty finding masks to fit facial features.

Within ASPR, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is collaborating with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the personal use mask design challenge. NIOSH administers the nation’s respirator approval program.

The first phase of the challenge, which opens today, invites new mask designs that meet specific criteria and asks the submitter to describe how that design idea fits the criteria and solves the hurdles to mask wearing. Up to 10 winning ideas will be selected to split $100,000. Submissions are due by 5 p.m. EDT April 21, 2021.

In the second phase of the challenge, contest participants submit prototypes that leverage research on the filtration efficiency of materials and meet the criteria including filtration, fit, comfort, and how easily the design can be manufactured on large scale. NIOSH and partner labs will test how well the prototypes meet filtration and airflow resistance criteria (as applicable to the designs). Up to five winning prototypes will split $400,000. Winners also will be provided access to BARDA’s scientific expertise to complete development of the prototype.

Mask designs cannot use prophylactic chemical treatments, such as sprays or drugs that are inhaled or absorbed through the skin, nose, or mouth, to achieve their protective effects. Also excluded are contract tracing apps and other behavioral change protocols, self-contained breathing apparatus or supplied air design, accessories or modifications to NIOSH-approved respirators or FDA-approved surgical masks, such as additional filters, or modifying the head straps or ear loops.

Winners must be U.S. citizens or legal residents or U.S.-owned businesses operating in the United States. Contest rules, including eligibility, criteria for winning entries and how to submit a design, are available on Challenge.gov.

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