Minneapolis Startup Breathes New Life Into Dated Face Mask Design

Clean air is probably something that most Minnesotans take for granted. But not everyone has that luxury.

The World Health Organization estimates that 4.2 million people die each year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution – more than Malaria and contaminated drinking water.

A group of medical entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities hopes to a new provide a new solution to the issue through their startup Breathe99, a company that aims to create comfortable, stylish and sustainable face masks.

The company is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $90,000 in funding for the production of its flagship product, the B1 Mask. Breathe99 says that the mask filters 99 percent of common pollutants and reduces waste commonly associated with disposable surgical masks. At press time, the startup has raised $24,123 from 285 backers and had 16 days left in the campaign.

Breathe99 CEO and co-founder Max Bock-Aronson is a design engineer at Worrell, a firm in Northeast Minneapolis that creates and tests medical products. Bock-Aronson said that he was inspired to create the company while traveling in Vietnam during a trip in college.

“Pollution is the most significant environmental health risk of the 21st century,” he told Minne Inno. “It made me realize that breathing clean air is a privilege. It wasn’t something I had considered before.”

At the time, Bock-Aronson was taking a course on air pollution and learned how ineffective the popular cloth masks were at blocking the truly harmful pollutants.

The biggest culprit that affects human health is atmospheric particulate matter – the stuff that comes out of car tailpipes or gets thrown into the air during wildfires. Continued exposure to high amounts of atmospheric particulate matter could result in respiratory infections, poor heart health and asthma.

“We don’t understand all of the effects air pollution has on the body, but it’s become more apparent that it’s bad for a person’s overall health.”

Breathe99 says that its B1 Mask has the capabilities of an industrial respirator with the convenience and affordability of a lightweight mask.

“THIS ISN’T JUST ABOUT AIR POLLUTION. IT’S ABOUT SAFER BREATHING – FOR EVERYONE.”

The company is targeting a wide range of consumers with its products, including urban commuters and bikers, residents impacted by wildfires, woodworkers, travelers and those with respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD.

“The breathability of the mask is something we’ve focused on a lot,” Bock-Aronson explained. “We wanted to make something that looks good but doesn’t get hot and stuffy. You should feel both comfortable and safe when you breathe.”

Breathe99’s founders have ambitions beyond facemasks. They plan to contribute a portion of the proceeds from their product to funding clean air initiatives.

“We know that we’re not addressing the core issue of air pollution. The mask is a bandaid – not a solution. We want to do something to solve the problem itself,” Bock-Aronson said.

The startup is currently offering a pre-order of the B1 Masks through Kickstarter. If the campaign is successfully funded, Breathe99 will use the profits to buy injection molding tools to make the face piece and purchase materials to buy fabric. It is also seeking certification and approval from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the regualtory body for respirators. Breathe99 hopes that receiving this certification will give it a leg up on competitors.

Bock-Aronson knows that most people viewing the Kickstarter probably aren’t in the market for a respirator, which is why the company is providing an option to donate a facemask to someone in need.

“It’s a way to support the project even if you don’t need protection,” he said. “This isn’t just about air pollution. It’s about safer breathing – for everyone.”

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