N95 safety mask

Photo Credit: Deborah Cartagena

Jeff Cope is the Director, Strategy and Innovation at RTI Innovation Advisors. He originally published this blog post April 3, 2020, on LinkedIn.

The call came in late on a Thursday. Mike Sawalsksi, a longtime client and friend, had joined the Milwaukee MaskForce. This grassroots coalition of over 25 companies, hospitals, and universities is working to rapidly design and build reusable, medical-grade N95-style respirators for frontline medical workers and address the critical shortage during COVID-19.

MaskForce had built a prototype of a reusable mask with a filter insert and was struggling to find a good source for the filter media. Traditional medical suppliers were maxed out. Mike asked, “There have to be other companies out there capable of producing N95-spec filter material. Can you help us find them?”

Of course, we said “yes.” As a mission-driven innovation team, this is what we live for. We know innovative approaches can make a huge impact in peoples’ lives. This was a perfect opportunity for us to put our innovation superpowers to work and make a difference.

At the same time, this was not an easy ask. N95-spec filters are rather amazing materials: able to capture items as small as 0.3 microns, yet easy for a nurse or doctor to breathe through. Not just anyone can make these. A tall order for sure, but a critical need to address.

By Friday—less than 24 hours after the first call—we rallied a team, set our goal to have a list of companies by Monday, and ran a design sprint. Our team worked through the weekend, applying creative thinking methods, examining alternatives, and reviewing prior research on filtration. By Monday, we had compiled a list of 80 companies to contact. We ran the list by the MaskForce team to make sure we were not duplicating efforts. They gave us the all clear, and we started contacting companies.

We found a potential partner the same day. A company in Arizona had just developed a new N95-spec material, was ramping up production, and was looking for places to donate their materials. We connected them to the MaskForce team.

We didn’t stop there. We kept calling. By Tuesday, we had identified six companies in the process of scaling up production of N95-spec materials, willing to accept new customers, and with a collective capacity to produce millions of masks. One of the six is based in Wisconsin.

These companies are not traditional mask filter companies, yet each recognized the need and invested the effort to adapt their materials and production lines to manufacture this much-needed material.

We were blown away with the results. To find so many options in such a short time is simply incredible. Mike was overjoyed. “I knew you would come through, but never did I expect you would find so many companies so quickly. This is absolutely amazing! Thank you all,” he said.

At the same time, our thanks go to the Milwaukee MaskForce for its efforts and to all the teams banding together worldwide to address the critical shortage of PPE. We’re honored to support the efforts to provide masks to those who desperately need them.

We helped the Milwaukee MaskForce team in rapid fashion, and we’re not stopping there. To the other consortia, teams, and companies looking for filter media, please reach out. We can connect you to the firms we identified to ensure more masks are available for our medical professionals on the front lines of this war.

Let’s join forces to crush COVID-19.

Read this article to learn more about Milwaukee MaskForce. To get in touch or help out with the effort, contact us using the form below.

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Disclaimer: This piece was written by Jeff Cope (Director, Business Development) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.