The Mask Innovation Challenge Goes From Paper to Prototype

BARDA, NIOSH, and NIST Team Up to Offer a Total of $400,000 in Prizes to Top Mask Developers

December 21, 2021

The Mask Innovation Challenge Goes From Paper to Prototype Photograph

Today, we're asking innovators to take on a design challenge that will make a difference in the lives of people across the nation and the globe: build a better mask that anybody can use, and everybody wants to use. In August 2020, the Pew Research Center found that about 85 percent of people surveyed reported wearing a mask in stores or other businesses. That is a lot of people wearing masks – and a lot of opportunities for improvement.

We are calling on inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs to design masks that provide both improved comfort and superior filtration to protect people during pandemics, wildfires, or other emergencies. Participants will compete for cash prizes that total $400,000.

One of the most important criteria for successful masks is good design.

Innovative Ideas Defined Phase 1

Earlier this year, BARDA’s Division of Research, Innovation, and Ventures (DRIVe) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) asked innovators to come up with designs that transform masks and bolster their ability to protect people from respiratory pathogens. We were looking for novel design solutions that were more comfortable and provided superior protection for a variety of populations, including children. We asked for creativity – and we got some pretty astounding solutions.

In terms of sheer numbers, it seemed like everyone wanted to be part of the solution – we received more than 1,400 entries to the Phase 1 of the Mask Innovation Challenge. Inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico submitted their mask ideas. We received innovative ideas from school children to graduate students, and from large and small businesses alike. We were blown away by the creativity.

Although it was a tough choice, DRIVe and NIOSH selected 10 winners who had the most innovative, practical ideas. These Phase 1 winners represented the commitment to mask innovation across all sectors of the general public. Successful ideas came from big companies like Amazon and Levi Strauss & Co., and smaller companies like 4C AIR, Inc., Air99 LLC, RECm, and more. More information about each of the winners and their concepts may be found on the Mask Innovation Challenge page.

Outstanding Execution and Evolution Defines Phase 2

While Phase 1 of the Mask Innovation Challenge focused on the creation of novel mask designs on paper, Phase 2 is all about design execution and the rapid evolution of the product. In this next phase, we are moving from the drawing board to physical prototyping and testing. We are not just looking for incremental improvements; we are looking for revolutionary designs that will significantly change the status quo and advance the state of the art for mask design. Over the past year, we have seen notable improvements, but now we want innovators to shoot for the moon in their designs.

We designed Phase 2 to inspire the best ideas from innovators by setting forth a bold and ambitious goal to completely reimagine the future of masks and respiratory protection. To achieve this goal, we have developed a “Moonshot Target Product Profile,” which is comprised of performance criteria that we believe a mask or protective device should possess if it were not beholden to the laws of physics. We are asking innovators to develop concepts that are inspiring and imaginative while maintaining a human-centered approach to design.

We are continuing to look for new ideas from new submitters and this phase is open to any U.S. citizen or U.S. company with a great idea, not only the Phase 1 winners. Even if you submitted your idea during Phase 1 of the challenge and didn’t win, we encourage you to refine your idea and submit a revised concept. Broadly, this phase will take place across four successive rounds:

  • Round 1: Whitepaper submission
  • Round 2: Initial laboratory testing
  • Round 3: Redesign
  • Round 4: Final Laboratory testing (aka the Final Mask Face-Off)

In Round 1, each submitter will propose a concept in a whitepaper that should strive to meet as many of the criteria in the Moonshot Target Product Profile "as possible, while providing in-depth detail and evidence, explaining how their mask will address those criteria. Right now, preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and the seasonal flu is at the forefront. However, we know that pandemics occur periodically and that other health threats to respiratory health happen may arise even more frequently (such as wildfires), so mask designs will need to protect against a range of pathogens and irritants to ensure that we have more tools in our toolbox for the next public health emergency.

Challenge participants should also showcase any ways that they plan to decrease the risks of other hazards (such as gases), keep costs low, produce a reusable solution, employ smart technologies and sensors that can provide actionable health information, and make it easy for people to understand and see wearer. Additionally, we are looking for a solution that is so comfortable, mask wearers might even forget that they still have it on their faces.

Evaluation and Feedback from Top Experts

To help bring out the best-of-the-best in your product, three government partners have teamed up to bring their unique perspectives on mask design: DRIVe, NIOSH, and the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST). Experts from NIOSH will evaluate the breathability, filter efficiency, and comfort of prototypes. Experts from NIST will take a different approach, using flow visualization imaging techniques to evaluate the fit and function of masks.

Ultimately, the winners of this challenge will be determined in Round 4, termed the Final Mask Face-Off, based on their performance in the laboratory and the best overall design. Challenge participants will have the opportunity to receive specialized expert feedback that they can use to refine their products and make them more user-friendly before submission to the Final Mask Face-Off in Round 4. Ultimately, we want to help support the competitors so that they can develop the most effective product to save lives.

Saving Lives Today and Preparing for the Next Pandemic

There have been some innovations in mask design over the last 100 years, but not nearly enough. Although synthetic fabrics have offered some new options for personal masks, today’s personal masks are strikingly similar to the ones that were used over 100 years ago during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The Mask Innovation Challenge gives you the chance to help save lives during this pandemic and the next one. Although we don’t know when the next pandemic will occur, we do know that masks are likely to be one of the first public health tools that can be used to slow the spread of respiratory infections. Masks are needed beyond pandemics, too, for other respiratory threats from natural disasters like wildfires, pollution, seasonal flu, and other respiratory diseases. The innovative solution that you develop during this challenge could change health for the better.

Contest rules, including eligibility, criteria for winning entries, and how to submit a design, are available on


The Division of Research, Innovation and Ventures (DRIVe) team is developing new approaches to catalyze innovation in personal protective equipment for public use, including through the use of prize challenge competitions. More information is available at

Last Updated: December 21, 2021


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