The Airgami Story
This is a story about true love of a father for his son and a technologist for humanity. It begins in Suzhou, China in 2011.
Suzhou is 2,500 year-old city 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.
Prior to founding Air99, Richard Gordon had moved there with his wife and young son.
By 2011, Suzhou was already transforming itself into a 21st-century metropolis in one gigantic leap. A modern city with skyscrapers and sprawling complexes mushroomed at the outskirts of the old city, including a subway system under the ancient canals.
As enormous buildings rose, air quality deteriorated drastically. The sky turned dull gray with the dust, diesel exhaust, and industrial air pollution floating in the air, leaving gritty black residue everywhere.
Air Quality Turns Hazardous
Air pollution causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is responsible for 6 of the top-10 killer diseases worldwide. In some cities with bad air quality, life expectancy is reduced by as much as 6 years because of air pollution.
Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the level of air pollution based on the amount of dangerous microscopic PM2.5 particles in the air. These particles, when inhaled deep into the lungs, cause COPD.
In Suzhou between 2012 and 2014, AQI levels for the most hazardous particles (PM2.5) ranged between 200 and 400 range (very unhealthy to hazardous).
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 felt driven to action.
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 distinguished career engineering hardware and software. His experience informed him what to do next.
He began hacking N95 masks to make them fit children. He reasoned that poorly-fitting N95 masks leak bad air, thereby defeating the filter. He wanted a better-fitting mask. Masks also fogged his glasses, which was incredibly dangerous when it happened while riding an black electric scooter, affectionately named, "Donkey", with his son in traffic in Suzhou. Conventional mask nose wires bit into his face and left marks on his skin that stayed for hours. It was hard to keep masks clean and smelling fresh so he had to throw them away after a day or two of use.
By 2014, when he returned to the United States with his family, his lab notebook brimmed 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 and he had a separate project running in parallel to the mask project that involved an origami design having unusual meta-material properties.
In an instant of inspiration Richard realized his origami could be adapted to a mask and 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 he filed a patent, which was granted in 2020.
Richard entered the Airgami prototype into the 2019 Reimagining Respiratory Protection QuickFire Challenge sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovoation - 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:
- Suitable for all populations and ages
- Effective in preventing infection
- 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 $100,000 in funding.
A key objective of the QuickFire Challenge was to identify a mask that could potentially save lives by improving respiratory safety, given the threat of future pandemics.
Nine weeks after Air99 received the QuickFire Challenge Award, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe with devastating human and economic consequences.
Now, after great effort and perseverance, the Airgami mask is here.
The landscape of respiratory protection is forever changed. And because of it, we can all breathe easier.
All images Copyright © 2020 Richard Gordon.