This is a story about love and responsibility ... of a father and technologist for his son, for his family, and for all of this world. It begins in Suzhou, China in 2011. Tiger Hill Pagoda Suzhou China

Suzhou, China

Suzhou was founded in 514 BC and dubbed the Venice of the East by Marco Polo in 1276. It has sublime Unesco World Heritage gardens, a 1,000+ year-old, leaning, Yunyan Pagoda on Tiger Hill, and a strong economic and manufacturing ecosystem.

In 2011, Richard Gordon moved there with his wife and young son so that his wife could pursue her career.

Suzhou Transforms

When they arrived, Suzhou was transforming into a 21st-century metropolis in one giant leap. A modern city with sprawling complexes mushroomed at the outskirts of the old city. A subway system was built beneath the ancient canals and waterways.

As skyscrapers rose, air quality deteriorated drastically. The sky turned dull gray with dust, diesel exhaust, and industrial air pollution that left clean windows blackened with soot after only a few days.

Hazardous Air Quality

Air pollution causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is linked to 6 of the top-10 killer diseases worldwide. In some cities with bad air pollution, resident life-expectancy is reduced by as much as 6 years.

Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the level of air pollution based on the concentration of dangerous microscopic particulates in the air. They can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause COPD.

In Suzhou between 2012 and 2014, AQI levels for the most hazardous particles ranged between very unhealthy (AQI above 200) to hazardous (AQI above 400).

Children are significantly more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because their lungs are still developing. Seniors are also more vulnerable because of age- and disease-diminished lung capacity.

Richard feared that his six-year-old son and five-year-old niece would develop asthma, or worse. He was driven to action.

Hacking Masks

Richard and his wife routinely wore N95 masks that they purchased in the United States before moving to China, but they didn't fit children. His desperation grew.

Richard is an inventor with degrees from Brown and Stanford Universities and a long and distinguished engineering career in hardware and software. He knew what to do next.

He hacked N95 masks to make them fit children. In the process, he learned that most N95 masks didn't fit well and a poorly-fitting N95 mask leaks outside air, defeating the filter. He wanted a better-fitting mask.

Masks seemed to always fog his glasses while riding an electric scooter in Suzhou's dangerous traffic, exposing him to a dangerous accident hazard. Conventional masks have nose wires that bit into his face after a day of use and left marks on his skin that remained for hours.

Masks were hard to keep clean and smelled really bad after a couple of days of use, so he had to throw them away frequently.

Back in the USA

By 2014, when he returned to the United States with his family, his lab notebook brimming with ideas about how to make a better mask that would fit and appeal to kids and adults.

Richard reached out to his network and beyond to assemble a world-class advisory team and connect with suppliers of the advanced materials needed to build a better mask.


Several months of brainstorming, designing, and prototyping passed. Then Richard had a breakthrough.

Richard's interests are broad so he often has more than one project going at a time. He realized an origami he was using in another project could be adapted to a mask. At that moment, the Airgami respirator was born.


Richard and his team experimented with a wide range of materials and built hundreds of prototypes in order to refine the Airgami design and make it manufacturable.

In 2017 he started a company, Air99 LLC and filed a patent, which has been granted. International patenting has followed.

QuickFire Challenge

Richard entered the Airgami prototype into the 2019 Reimagining Respiratory Protection QuickFire Challenge sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

The QuickFire Challenge aimed to identify a next-gen reusable N95 mask design that was:

  • Suitable for all populations and ages
  • Effective in preventing infection
  • Comfortable
  • Reusable a minimum of 5 times
  • Simple, requiring no special instructions or fit testing
  • Minimally interfering with breathing or other activities

In October, 2019, Air99 was named the awardee of the 2019 Reimagining Respiratory Protection QuickFire Challenge. Richard traveled to Washington, DC to receive the reward, including a trophy and a $100,000 grant.

COVID-19 Strikes

A primary objective of the QuickFire Challenge was to find a mask that could potentially save lives in case of a pandemic.

Nine weeks after Air99 received the QuickFire Challenge Award, COVID-19 swept the globe, bringing devastating human and economic consequences.

Wildfires Rage

As if COVID-19 wasn't bad enough, California, Oregon, and Colorado saw the worst wildfires in their recorded histories in 2020, sending clouds of hazardous particulates into the atmosphere, affecting millions of people hundreds of miles down wind. Air pollution knows no boundaries.

Airgami Is Ready

Now, after great effort and perseverance, the Airgami mask is ready to take on airborne challenges and save lives. The landscape of respiratory protection is forever changed. And because of it, we can all breathe easier.


All images Copyright © 2020 Richard Gordon.