With a squeeze of the device, a fine mist sprays in front of my nose. I inhale deeply, and feel the dry air of fall give way to a stream of moisture. It’s a pleasant sensation for anyone who has trouble breathing as temperatures get cold. As a bonus? A Harvard study demonstrates it may have a protective effect against airborne viruses like COVID-19—similar to wearing a cotton mask.
For the next four to five hours, I’ll breathe out 50% fewer respiratory droplets that could carry disease and make other people sick. Meanwhile, any bad droplets I breathe in should be less likely to make their way down to my lungs, where COVID-19 does its worst damage.
This is the Fend. Launched by Harvard professor David Edwards in 2020 during the initial spread of COVID-19, it’s a contraption that holds a solution of salt water fortified with calcium—basically, a concoction similar to seawater. When you squeeze the device, the liquid expels the perfectly sized dro
plets to penetrate through your nose into your trachea. There, the solution hydrates the mucus lining of your airways, which is your body’s natural sticky trap to catch viruses before they go deeper into your lungs. The hydration stabilizes the mucus, making you less likely to exhale droplets, and less prone to breathe in droplets too.
Edwards has supported this science over multiple peer-reviewed papers published at Harvard, testing more than 700 subjects across the United States, Germany, and India. Fends were donated by Edwards’s company for some of the studies, but the research itself has been paid for by groups including the National Institutes of Health, German public funding, and the Premji Foundation. “I do think it’s valid,” says Robert Langer, a distinguished Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cofounder of Moderna, who has read Edwards’s research.
The first Fend found some market traction, but it was never designed to be a mainstream device. “When we came out with the [Fend], we really rushed to market several months after discovering the phenomenon,” Edwards says. That made it the perfect fodder for a redesign by the San Francisco-based design firm Ammunition—the same firm behind lauded consumer products like Beats by Dre headphones and Ember mugs.
So in January of this year, Edwards connected with Ammunition, which saw this esoteric, quasi-medical device as a fascinating design problem. “From an Ammunition perspective, this is a freaking ideal project,” says founder Robert Brunner. “We have to figure out how to [build] it and create a new audience for it.”
Brunner rattles off the problems with the original Fend: “It’s too expensive, it’s fragile, it requires batteries, it’s heavy, it doesn’t travel well. To turn it off you have to take the batteries out.”
Whereas the original Fend was a $50 battery-powered glass sculpture, the new Fend designed by Ammunition is a $13 miniaturized version that can slip into your pocket and fall to the floor without shattering. It’s preloaded with enough solution to use for a month, and when you’re done, you can send it back to Fend to be recycled.
Brunner decided to invest in the company, tasking Ammunition to take charge of both the Fend product and its brand. Brunner’s design team mulled where to take the product next. Technically, they needed to build a mister. And that mister could look like almost anything you can imagine. They considered existing nasal sprays you can buy at the drugstore, but forms like those leaned too closely to a medical device instead of a consumer product.
“That [distinction was] important early on—that this doesn’t feel anything like an inhaler,” Brunner says. “So if I take it into public, I don’t feel self-conscious like I have an ailment.”
The design team considered all sorts of wild designs, including Fends you might wear on your body. Then one day Brunner was looking at the original Fend sitting on his desk. He was appreciating its hourglass form when he realized it should be kept as is. “I’ve got this philosophy around new things. You have to give people an entry point,” Brunner says. “If you give someone something new without an entry point . . . something where they’ve never seen anything like it or touched anything like it . . . chances are you’re going to fail.”
The hourglass was a familiar reference point, even though Fend has nothing to do with time. But the shape also makes the device easier to squeeze, which is key for children and older adults with fine motor issues who might use the device. The other component Brunner wanted was something that would be surprising or intriguing—something that just made you happy to use the device, like clicking your favorite ballpoint pen.
So in the middle of the Fend, the team added an elastomeric belt. When you squeeze the Fend to spray, the belt actually squishes outward like a pancake. Then when you finish squeezing, it pops perfectly back into place. “It’s endearing. And that’s the one [kind of] thing mechanical engineers want to get rid of. It’s an extra few cents, it’s going to take a long time to get it right,” Brunner says. “But it’s a building block I found important for consumer engagement. You’re asking for people to use something on a daily basis. If you can make it 10% to 15% more fun, you have a better chance of getting [traction].”
To explain and market the product, the team developed a communications strategy in which Edwards filmed videos explaining the usage and science behind the device in short, minute-long blips that could build up someone’s understanding over time. These videos will be texted to new users as part of a 21-day challenge to build a Fending habit—which comes with a money-back guarantee.
The Fend launches today for $13. It’s a disposable product (after 60 to 80 pumps, you are supposed to recycle it), meant to reach as many people as possible (though it is not meant to replace masking). Longer term, Edwards and Brunner tease that they are working on more Fend products that may have replaceable cartridges and other technologies that require more development time. “We need to take a step back and realize just how fast behaviors changed in the past two years as far as hygiene is concerned,” Edwards says. “But it’s still such a tough road.”