The US government will pay you up to $500,000 to design a less annoying face mask

Over a year into the pandemic, we’ve seen a wide variety of masks, from totally unsafe fashion pieces, to RGB nightmares, not to mention a bunch of other stylish options. But if you think you might have an idea for a better mask that more people might want to wear, the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has announced a competition to design “the next generation of masks” — with a potential $500,000 total prize waiting for the winners.

The Mask Innovation Challenge was created in partnership with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH, an organization under the CDC) to address some of the common complaints leveled at masks, like the fact they can fog up glasses, irritate your skin, become uncomfortable to wear, get in the way of communication, and potentially let COVID-19 particles in through the sides.

The contest will have two phases. The first phase, focused on “design,” is split into two tracks, one that considers redesigns of existing masks, and another that’s focused on new technologies and materials. Submissions are supposed to include actual schematics for building the proposed masks, which NIOSH says may be tested in the future as well. Phase One will produce up to 10 winners, each of whom will receive $10,000 to help build a prototype of their masks.

The second “proof-of-concept” phase will require contestants to respond to a hypothetical scenario with a brand-new mask design, not based on any existing mask. Phase two entrants will submit physical prototypes of their masks for NIOSH to test. Up to five winners from phase two will split a total prize pool of $400,000. NIOSH and BARDA say more details on the second phase will be available at a later date.

Holding a design contest to find a “better” mask could produce some real solutions, but beyond that, I think it reflects the increased role masks may play in our lives, even after a majority of people are vaccinated. And that’s not to say that the masks you may already own aren’t effective; they are. There are really multiple problems getting in the way of mask use; addressing complaints in mask design is one direction, but another big issue is availability. Masks manufacturers aren’t yet able to consistently meet demand.

For instance, it’s still not as easy as it should be to get N95s and KN95s, two frequently recommended masks that offer a step up in filtration from cloth varieties. There’s a lot at play here too; the long term effects of offshoring medical supplies manufacturing have impacted availability, but so have shortages of key mask making materials like meltblown textile. There’s also the separate issue of counterfeit masks. According to the CDC, about 60 percent of KN95s in the US aren’t as effective at filtering COVID-19 particles as their labels might indicate.

The Biden administration has set plans into motion to force the creation of more essential pandemic supplies and alleviate some of these issues, but it’s important to remember that building a better mask is just one facet of a much larger strategy. There’s no guarantee more people will wear the winning masks just because they don’t fog up their glasses.

The deadline for submission to phase one of the Mask Innovation Challenge is April 21st.

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