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The CDC will pay you $500K to design a better mask

We found a design competition that’s actually worthwhile.

The CDC will pay you $500K to design a better mask
[Image: mostafa absalan/iStock]
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Masks are a crucial tool in the fight against COVID-19, but most of them are horribly designed (or alternatively, are just about the looks): they’re stuffy, they cause maskne, they fog up your glasses, they’re too big—or too small. Now the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are taking charge with an open design challenge to “build tomorrow’s mask.” The purse: a total of $500,000.

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The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) under the CDC and Department of Health and Human Services – Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) have launched the mask challenge to “accelerate the next generation of masks,” according to the challenge’s website. They are asking people to submit a design that improves upon an existing mask design, or go completely off the rails and create a new design that incorporates materials and technologies that haven’t yet been used in existing masks. The agencies are accepting submissions until April 21.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned masks into a daily necessity and fashion accessory and inspired all kinds of new designs: There are space helmets, futuristic face shields, Louis Vuitton sun-sensitive face shields, transparent face masks, and a slew of cotton masks from the likes of Old Navy, Uniqlo, and Keen. Some experts say Americans may continue to wear masks regularly, long after the pandemic ends.

There are two phases to the contest: the concept phase and the proof-of-concept phase. In the first, mask submissions are evaluated for filtration efficiency, their ability to reduce airflow through the mask, and the the mask’s ability to help the wearer inhale fewer dangerous particles (more specific specs here). Up to ten phase-one winners will receive $10,000 each. In phase two, hopefuls will submit a prototype for NIOSH to test. This phase has a grand prize of $400,000 to be divided between five winners.

The challenge notes that a lot of existing masks tout protective capabilities that are unconfirmed and lack scientific evidence. This addresses the need to “to develop better designs, materials, and technologies,” according to the challenge website, that are not only comfortable but stacks up to science. If you have a dream mask in mind, now’s your chance to make it a reality.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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