The Canary Mask: From Side Project to Orders in a Weekend

3/2/12Follow @curtwoodward

About a week ago, Jerome Healy’s idea for creating cheap, durable, reusable filter masks for developing countries was pretty much just that—an idea. He’d developed some prototypes of the masks for an industrial design project while at the University of Washington, and even took a few variations over to India to research whether people would use them. But he was basically clueless when it came to the hairier business questions of supply costs and a market price.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people that wanted to offer their help,” Healy says. “And the only advice they’d have is, ‘Well, you’ve got to get this thing priced.’” He tried sussing out how much his simple raw materials would cost by digging around online, but never really found anything solid. Meanwhile, Healy graduated, and went about finding a job as a graphic designer. His “Canary” dust mask remained a bit of a dream, something that people from school would ask about occasionally. But it wasn’t clear anything would ever happen with it.

That changed last weekend, when Healy attended the Social Enterprise Weekend event held in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. As I wrote in this preview, the SocEnt Weekend borrowed the three-day hackathon model from Startup Weekend and applied it to business ideas that are designed to improve society while also making money.

Healy, who works at micro-donation startup Jolkona, pitched his Canary masks on the first night, even throwing in the fact that it was his 28th birthday to woo supporters to work on the project. He wound up with a team that helped design prototypes, promote the idea online, and, probably most importantly, find sources for raw materials and potential buyers of the finished masks.

By the end of the weekend, the Canary project had promises from two customers to buy 1,200 of the masks if they wind up being produced—not bad for a crash course in social business.

“I had a million questions before,” Healy says. “And now I have a ton of questions answered, and really can put together a nice plan of how I’m going to go forward.”

The problem that Healy’s Canary masks seek to solve is prevalent in developing urban areas: particulate pollution in the air. This can come from any number of sources, including ash from stoves, plain old dust, or diesel engine exhaust. The World Health Organization estimates that urban air pollution causes 1.3 million deaths a year worldwide.

Simple respirator masks, like the kind you might see a painter wearing on the job, can block a lot of particulates in the air. Healy himself got some up-close experience with the limitations of those cloth models, however, when he worked loading sacks of limestone powder in a Seattle factory.

The typical fabric mask would quickly get soaked with sweat, and then get caked with the same limestone dust that you were trying to avoid, Healy says—so he eventually tossed them aside and just took his chances with all the dust in the air. A co-worker said there was an upside: you didn’t have to worry about having enough calcium in your diet.

“Two hundred pallets a day for, like, 13-hour shifts. It was definitely a good motivator to get into school,” he says.

That experience, coupled with his passion for industrial design and observations from an earlier trip to India made Healy interested in a mask design that would resist sweat and other kinds of moisture, making it more durable. He experimented with various ideas and came up with a thin, flexible, plastic shell that could be folded from a flat sheet into a little squarish box that fit over the mouth and nose.

With a rudimentary filter in place, it was a good enough mockup to take on the road for early tests back in India right after graduation. While working in a factory that made instruments, Healy tried to press his prototypes into any hands he could find.

“I would just basically hit up anybody who I slightly knew through a third party, anything,” Healy says. “So it was a lot of, like, random white dude walking through a village, going, ‘Uh, yeah, this guy wants you to put this on your face,’” he says. “I got a lot of creepy looks, but I got a lot of good feedback too.”

A couple of major lessons from those field tests stand out. People in India were not keen on the plastic construction, even though it was more durable, because they saw the potential for a new stream of plastic garbage entering the system.

“People were really concerned, at every level I talked to—from a photographer in Dehli all the way to a factory worker in southern India,” he says. “They’d be like, ‘Great idea, but if you have 1.3 billion people wearing masks and we’ve got piles of plastic all over the place, this is not going to be good for us.” Based on that feedback, he switched the material to waxed paper—the prototypes he carries around right now are actually made of the same stuff from some restaurant carry-out boxes.

The other thing that Healy found was a culture of small, incremental purchases that could help his idea in the market. Folks he talked to didn’t buy large quantities of essentials and keep them in stock, preferring instead to grab soap or other personal items in small containers all the time. That, Healy says, could bode well for a device that requires users to swap out small filters all the time.

Healy’s masks also are designed to ship as flat pieces of paper, cut into their ready-to-fold shape with notches and slots to hold everything together. That saves shipping costs, and by extension fuel, because more can be sent in a batch. With regular dome-shaped masks, they have to be packaged more carefully to avoid crushing, which takes up more space. They’re tied into place with simple lengths of synthetic fabric, which can be acquired from textile companies by the bagful as leftover cuttings.

All of this was basically already worked out by the time Healy decided to go to the SocEnt Weekend event at the Hub Seattle office in Pioneer Square last Friday. But, as we said before, he was stuck without any clue of how to price the supplies needed to make the Canary masks.

That’s where a bit of luck, in the person of Matt John, came into play. John works in business development for Elemental LED, a supplier of the high-efficiency lights based in Emeryville, CA. He comes up to Seattle periodically for business, and was persuaded to tag along to the SocEnt Weekend event by a pair of friends.

John figured he’d wind up on whatever team his two buddies chose, but changed his mind when he saw Healy’s product idea. “When I saw something that was the closest to almost being something you could hold in your hand, that could actually help people, that really intrigued me,” John says.

John jumped into the Canary project, and immediately contributed with his background in working with suppliers. He was able to make a few calls around to salespeople who could help find sources of the raw materials, and got Healy the thing he’d been trying to track down for months: quotes on how much his supplies would cost.

“What we figured out is, if you’re buying a two-cent cotton mask every single day, that by the end of the week, if you use our mask, you’ll save about 40 percent,” Healy says. “That’s with us making a 50 percent profit.”

John then had something he could actually sell, at least speculatively. To overseas customers, he pitched the masks as a perk to give to employees that could help them and their children avoid air pollution while commuting to and from work and school—keep them from getting sick, and you have more productive workers.

An LED manufacturer in China jumped at the offer, filling an order that said they would buy 1,000 of the masks if they make it into production. “People were legitimately interested,” John says.

Another contact, at a California company that makes custom guitars embedded with video displays, didn’t want the masks for his shop. But he was interested in a personal use: “He saw it and said, ‘Oh hey, I’m going to take that to Burning Man,” the huge counterculture festival in the windy, dry Nevada desert. That customer signed up for another 200 masks if they wind up being produced, John says.

“I see a real possible future for this product. Yeah, you’d have to dig a little deeper into that, and see how much it’d take you to dig into the markets,” John says. “But yeah, I think it could be done.”

Healy isn’t exactly quitting his day job just yet. But now that he’s armed with customer interest and firmer supply figures, he’s hoping to find partners who could take the Canary idea to the next level. With a strong global-health sector in the Seattle area, and some new mentors in the nascent social entrepreneurship scene, he’s at least got a better shot than just a week earlier.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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