Amidst the Delta variant surge, is there a market for a better face mask, one made in the USA?
Or is a mask just an interchangeable utility item, required for sending kids to school or entering a movie theater or office?
A five-year-old startup in Somerville, Folia Materials, and a century-old textiles business in West Bridgewater, Shamut Corp., are banking on the former.
The startup, Folia Materials, is optimistic about the demand for masks with new types of protective features. Folia specializes in a process for coating paper with silver nanoparticles. What’s the benefit? Results from a testing lab in Britain last month showed that silver-coated paper, which the company says is an ideal material for masks, kills 99.9 percent of COVID-19 virus on its surface within an hour. That could help make a mask more protective for people who may fidget with it, or take it off, and then touch their face before they’ve had a chance to wash their hands.
But Folia faces challenges in marketing the mask ― produced by a manufacturing partner in Virginia, Premium PPE. In this country, and within the European Union, it can’t legally make the claim that the surface of the mask kills COVID-19 until its anti-viral properties are evaluated by government regulators. So for US and EU customers interested in buying masks, it refrains from doing that, but on the “international” page on Folia’s site, targeting other regions, it lays out that claim, along with the lab’s test results.
In February, Folia received an e-mail from the US Food and Drug Administration that said it would need to seek a traditional approval, because of the anti-viral claims, as opposed to working under an emergency use authorization from the agency that covers many other types of masks. But Folia CEO Jonathan Levine says he’s not sure his company should invest the $1 million to $2 million, and roughly two years, needed to get FDA approval to market the masks as anti-viral in the US, given how unpredictable the mask market is.
Folia’s founders, Levine and Theresa Dankovich, are married, and both earned PhDs before starting the company. Dankovich’s doctoral work involved developing a new way of coating paper with a layer of tiny metal nanoparticles, as an add-on to the normal paper manufacturing process. One useful metal is silver, which, Levine explains, can kill bacteria and viruses on contact. Silver has “three or four different ways to mess up the virus’ or bacteria’s ability to function, like by breaking the machinery required to interact with other cells, or the machinery required for replicating, so you end up with things being dead. A lot of the chemistry is similar to putting Clorox on your countertop, but obviously you don’t want chemicals like that on your face mask.”
Before the pandemic, Folia was working with a manufacturing partners in Bangladesh to make paper water filters, which could turn bacteria-ridden water into safe drinking water. Those filters are similar to cone-shaped coffee filters, and they work with a plastic funnel — simple, with no need for electricity. Levine says they’re sold for about 20 cents each, and each filter can clean 20 liters of water. “There’s no reason this shouldn’t be in every single retail store” in countries like Bangladesh, Levine says, where safe drinking water isn’t readily available.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Folia had looked at producing face masks to prevent the spread of other viruses, like MRSA, Levine says: “It costs us pennies for a water filter, and a mask is essentially the same size.”
The company’s current design is a three-layer surgical-style mask, with a coating of silver nanoparticles on the outmost layer. The silver coating turns that layer orange. Folia started making masks last year, and it received the lab testing results in late July. Levine says the company’s goal isn’t to become a mask-making company, but rather to sell silver-coated rolls of paper to other producers, “because there are so many people who make face masks” globally, and might want to add additional protection to them. Folia has so far raised nearly $4 million, roughly half in grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation, and half in private capital.
But the market for face masks is “a disaster now,” says Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who has been studying it. In the early stages of the pandemic last year, Shih says, the US government was encouraging manufacturers here to “step up and get into the mask business.” But Chinese manufacturers also began cranking up production. Starting in the May-June time period this year, Shih says there have been “a flood of these imports, oftentimes selling below the cost of materials, caused by excess supply. Chinese competitors have the product, and they want to get rid of it. It’s a classic supply-demand imbalance.”
One big question is whether there’s a market for higher-quality, slightly pricier masks. Shih is not convinced. Even hospitals, he notes, often buy supplies through group purchasing organizations that “are set up to get them lower prices. So you’d think hospitals would want the quality, but you have conflicting goals there.” In other cases, he says, in earlier stages of the pandemic, big buyers had an urgent need for a specific quantity of masks, and they were inclined to buy whatever they can get at the moment, rather than shop based on quality or features like special coatings.
James Wyner, CEO of Shawmut Corp., a West Bridgewater maker of advanced textiles and other materials, has been experiencing those market dynamics first-hand. Last fall, Wyner’s company began setting up a new production line to make highly-protective N95 masks. Compared with Folia’s, they are more tight-fitting, but they don’t have any special coating on the outer layer. In February, the company received certification from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which oversees masks that are commonly used in the workplace. At the time, Wyner was bullish about making 10 million masks a month before the year was out, and ramping up his workforce from 100 to 350 employees. A key marketing angle is that the masks and all their component materials are made in the US.
Wyner says that that angle resonates with some buyers, including ambulance companies, police, and fire departments. “But to be honest,” he writes via e-mail, “we have been surprised by how little interest there is in US made product overall.” More effective, he says, has been its effort to emphasize the mask’s light weight and comfort for people who need to wear it all day. Wyner also notes that most of the biggest social media and search companies have decided to block all advertising of N95 masks, because of concerns about counterfeiting and prior supply shortages. “Getting the word out is hard,” Wyner says.
Shawmut continues to make masks in West Bridgewater, but Wyner says that while the target was originally five million masks a month, heading toward 10 million by the end of 2021, “we are operating well below that at the moment.” And his expectations for hiring additional workers may not pan out, either.
What started as a mask shortage last year has become a mask surplus this year — and that doesn’t seem to favor the producers who are trying to do something different.