In the shipping room of his factory in Boulder, Colorado, Richard Gordon shows off a tray of multicolored face masks that are freshly sterilized.

They looked awful, felt awful, were hard to breathe in, and leaked.

Their mask, named the Airgami, is competing for a piece of the half-million dollar purse in the final phase of the mask innovation challenge. Kumiko Lippold says the contest aims to promote masks that have a better fit, function, and look than existing designs and to nurture the mask development community.

The contest may seem a little behind the curve, given that many countries have dropped masking requirements. She says there is a significant appetite for mask innovation. There will likely be other Pandemics and people will need to mask up again.

Air99, a team at Georgetown University, and Amazon are among the 10 finalist companies. The winner will be announced in October.

With billions of people wearing face masks for the first time in 2020 and complaining about their shortcomings, the Pandemic has triggered a surge in mask research. In a study published in June 2021, NIOSH engineer and aerosol researcher William Lindsley and colleagues compared 19 widely used face coverings by attaching them to a respiratory aerosol simulator, a mannequin headform that breathes and coughs.

An experimental setup showing mannequin heads in classroom dynamic
William Lindsley of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health uses mannequin headforms to test masks. This setup simulates a classroom.National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Lindsley says that masks help, but that they don't work and that they are magic. Cloths, neck gaiters, and medical masks are better, but still pale in comparison to NIOSH-approved N95 masks. FFP2 masks are the equivalent of N95s in Europe.

Each of the BARDA challenge's finalist offer unique improvements. Gordon, an electrical and computer engineer, says that beauty is important in Airgami, but that is not why he and Xiao entered the field. After moving to China for Xiao's new job, they began their quest. I cut out 3M masks and glue them together to make a smaller mask for their son. He says it's very simple.

two people wear Air99 LLC masks
Richard Gordon and Min Xiao decided to develop a new face mask after they couldn’t find a good one to protect their young son from air pollution. “I thought masks were a total horror,” Gordon says.Richard Gordon

Gordon devoted himself to designing a better mask after the family moved back to the United States in 2015, because of his son's problem and the other issues he had with his own face coverings. He stumbled onto a show that had a piece by Robert Lang, a world- renowned origami mathematician and artist. The Airgami is a twist on a popular design, the magic ball, also known as the dragon's egg, which creates a large breathing space and fits tightly on the face. The heart of N95 technology is the inner of three layers of polypropylene. The mask comes in four different sizes and is available in a variety of colorful prints. Gordon created a computer program to automate the creasing, thanks to Lang.

Each mask costs $29.99 and must be hand-assembled. The world is flooded with $1.50 masks and there is no way we are going to compete.

Amazon's Perfectfit mask uses an origami design and comes in various fashion patterns and sizes. Steven Chu co-founded 4C Air, a company that makes the BreSafe transparent mask, which aims to improve masked conversations by allowing a listener to see the speaker's lips. The AtmoBlue mask has built-in fans that blow incoming air across high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters and a sensor that monitors air quality for pollution. The group at Georgetown developed metal foams that are lightweight and efficient.

a deconstructed view of the atmoblue mask
The hard-shell AtmoBlue mask has built-in fans that blow incoming air across filters and have a sensor that monitors air quality for pollution.Leandro Rolon

The brand's world-famous logo was added to the design of the Veil mask, which offers N95-level protection with a simple design that any garment manufacturer can produce with scissors and a sewing machine. There is a face covering for toddlers that features cartoon characters, animals, and spaceships and is made by PaciMask. It's just a mask, baby!

The standard N95 test assesses masks by exposing them to aerosolized sodium chloride and measuring the amount that passes through. A mask that filters at least 85% of the particles is an N95 rating. The additional tests were devised by NIOSH for the challenge. Researchers designed five different-size mannequin headforms, based on the faces of nearly 4,000 people, to recognize that mask fit. The mask challenge encourages entrants to provide analyses of how their masks fit.

Fluid dynamicist Matthew Staymates uses schlieren imaging to capture how air escapes from masks. This video shows Staymates unmasked, properly masked, and masked below the nose.M. Staymates/N. Hanacek/National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

NIST fluid dynamicist Matthew Staymates will test the finalist for leakage with schlieren imaging, which uses mirrors to visualize changes in air temperature. He can capture air escaping from the edges of masks when people breathe with the help of high-speed video cameras. Staymates says that the main challenge is design.

Gordon and Xiao think that the company will have a bright future after the Pandemic. The company never imagined that becoming a BARDA finalist would give them a boost.