US government launches $500,000 competition for innovative face mask designs

The idea is to create a new style that is effective and people will actually want to wear

A Kimono-clad woman wearing a fashionable face mask poses for a photograph at Coming of Age Day celebration ceremony at Yokohama Arena after the government declared the second state of emergency for the capital and some prefectures, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan January 11, 2021. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Face masks have become a part of everyday life over the past year, and it’s unlikely that will change any time soon. Naturally, brands have used this essentiality to their advantage, moving away from the disposable medical masks that were rife at the start of the pandemic to offer reusable, fashionable and statement masks.

There have been questions, however, about the safety of fashion masks. So, in a bid to find a more sustainable and effective solution, the US government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority has announced a competition to design "the next generation of masks", with a potential $500,000 in total prize money for the winners.

The idea is to create a mask that people will want to wear, but will also offer the appropriate level of medical protection. Created in partnership with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (an organisation under the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), it is hoped the designs will address some of the common issues with masks, such as causing glasses to fog up, making it difficult to communicate and irritating the skin.

The contest will be held in two phases. The first will focus on design, and will be split into two segments. One will look at the redesign of existing masks, and the other will be focused on new technologies and materials.

Submissions will need to include detailed plans for making the proposed designs, which could lead to test builds in the future. This stage of the competition will select up to 10 winners, who will each receive $10,000 to help make their mask idea a reality.

The second "proof-of-concept" phase will require contestants to produce physical mask designs not based on an existing style, and which are capable of responding to a hypothetical scenario. There will be up to five winners from this phase, who stand to split a total prize pool of $400,000. More details on the second phase will be released at a later date.

When judging entries, panellists will be grading designs on technological feasibility, innovation, barriers and overall design.

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