By Marcella McCarthy
Natasha Duwin and Tobias Franoszek spent a couple of years toying with the idea of a 3D printable and reusable mask. Their thought was it would be used for people who live around wildfires, for artists who work with toxic paints, for those with industrial jobs who simply need to filter-in the air they breathe, and for people living in heavily polluted areas, amongst others. But the need for a respirator mask because of a global pandemic that was spreading like wildfire, really wasn’t one of their planned use cases - until they launched.
“Since the 1970’s there hasn’t been a redesign of the mask, so we thought it was due for a refresh,” said Duwin, who co-founded Octo Safety with her husband and business partner, Franoszek. The two started working full-time on the project in January - before there were any signs that masks would be the most coveted items of 2020.
The back story
This isn’t their first rodeo. Duwin and Franoszek are serial entrepreneurs and the founders of Kipu, the medical records company focused on serving the substance abuse market. In fact, Duwin, who has experience in T.V. production (she worked at Discovery Communications for 6 years) and holds an MFA from FIU, came up with the idea for Kipu when she was teaching art classes at a detox facility. “I saw how they asked for peoples’ DOB (date of birth) 22 times,” she said, which boggled her and sparked the idea for their first business.
With the help of her husband, who has a technical background and who is a former international executive working with digital and interactive marketing agencies, the couple took the idea from concept to reality. They sold Kipu in 2017.
After some much-needed time off, they were on the lookout for their, “next big thing.”
With zero experience in the mask market or with 3D printing, they saw an opportunity and decided to go after it. “The reason we do these things [start companies in areas we know nothing about], is because we have an outsider advantage,” said Duwin, explaining that since they haven’t always been close to the problems, they see opportunities where others don’t.
“The disposable masks are cash printing machines, so why would you change it?” said Duwin, commenting on the lack of innovation in the mask industry.
The Octo Respirator Mask (ORM), Octo Safety’s v1 and v1.5 respirator mask, consists of an outer shell with mouth and nasal vents (made of nylon), a filter (which does not have to be exchanged), a silicon part that seals onto your face, and clear elastic straps that are adjustable.
In terms of reusability, the mask can be used an endless number of times while performing “casual” tasks such as going to the store, said Duwin. To clean it, everything but the filter should be wiped with alcohol, she added.
But if you’re really putting the mask to work, you may want to sterilize it - which you do by boiling. “...drop it into a pot of boiling water, boil for 3 minutes, and dry overnight,” Duwin said. Octo recommends that the ORM v1 and v1.5 (released on December 3rd) should be replaced after 30 boils.
Because I was interviewing the founders of a mask company, I felt comfortable interviewing them in person. Duwin and Franoszek run the company out of a loft-style office in Little Haiti. The first floor consists of 3D printers and a meeting table, while most desks are in the loft area upstairs. Everyone wears an ORM to work. Lined up on a series of thin white shelves, the company has the many iterations of the ORM printed and on display.
While the masks are manufactured at a facility, the design process is done in-house, hence the 3D printers. To get each piece of the mask just right, they have to time how many minutes each piece should print for. And then they need to come up with the exact process of how to assemble the pieces so when combined they are effective, comfortable, and durable. Only when the team has devised the entire “recipe” do they send the specifics off to a manufacturing plant to be produced.
Octo is currently able to print and assemble 600 masks per week, which isn’t sufficient for its demand, the founders said. In the near future, the company is planning to be able to print 1,200 masks per week. One of its strategies to increase availability will be to diversify its manufacturing facilities, but also to get the printing and assembly time down. The v1.5 mask currently sells for $107 to the public, while frontline workers receive a 45% discount, said Duwin.
We’ve all seen the N95 masks, but did you know that the “N” stands for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified? Octo’s masks are not yet NIOSH certified, although the certification process is underway. In order to get the certification, one of the factors is that the mask has to fit on as many different heads as possible. “To get NIOSH certified, you have to get the NIOSH heads - which represent the U.S. population,” said Franoszek, pointing to a series of different sized and shaped busts that the company uses as models when making sure the masks are a good fit all-around.
“We believe that everyone needs to have a respirator in their emergency kit, whether it’s for wildfires or pollution,” said Duwin. However, she recognizes that the $107 price point isn’t quite low enough for the mass market. “We’ll be offering financing and planning to partner with organizations who can subsidize the respirators,” she added. “And we’re also hoping that the masks will be much simpler to produce, and therefore we can sell them at a lower price point.” In 2021, she said, people can expect v2.
Funding: The company has been self-funded so far, but the founders said they will be looking for investors in the future. “We’ll be looking for partner-type investors who can help grow the business,” said Duwin.
Number of Employees: 5 full-time, 1 contractor and several vendors. “For example, just the development of the filter material involves 3 different vendors,” said Duwin.
Milestones: Released v1.5 on December 3rd. v2 coming in 2021.
The photos with this post were taken by Marcella McCarthy. At top of post, Octo Safety co-founders Tobias Franoszek and Natasha Duwin. This story was updated to correct the certification status.