Tiger Hill Pagoda Suzhou China

The Airgami story begins in Suzhou, China. Dubbed the "Venice of the East" by Marco Polo in 1276, Suzhou has sublime Unesco World Heritage gardens, a 1,000+ year-old, leaning, Yunyan Pagoda on Tiger Hill, and a vibrant 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 was then transforming into a 21st-century metropolis. A subway system was dug beneath the ancient canals. A glass-and-steel metropolis rose skyward beyond the stone-gated city's perimeter.

As buildings rose, air quality fell. The sky turned gray with dust, diesel exhaust, and industrial air pollution. Clean windows blackened with soot in one day.

Dangerous Air Quality

Air pollution causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is linked to 6 of the top-10 killer diseases worldwide. In some mega-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 that penetrate deep into the lungs and cause COPD if inhaled.

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). It's advisable to stay indoors when AQI levels are above 100.

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults because their lungs are developing. Seniors are more vulnerable because their lung capacity is diminished by age.

Richard feared for his son and young niece, knowing of these vulnerabilities. He was driven to action.

Hacking Respirators

Richard is an engineer with degrees from Brown and Stanford Universities and a career in engineering that began at Bell Laboratories in 1979. Naturally, he started hacking respirators to fit his son.

He reasoned that poorly-fitting respirators don't seal against the wearers' faces so bad air leaks in, bypassing good filters.

He rode an electric scooter in crazy Suzhou traffic and knew that a poorly-fitting respirator would fog his glasses and increase his chances of getting into an accident.

Every respirator he bought had an uncomfortable nose wire that bit into his skin day after a day, leaving painful marks and sores on his face.

The respirators he bought were unattractive. They got dirty and couldn't be cleaned or disinfected. There was a lot of waste.

Many people he saw wore disposable surgical masks or cloth masks that hardly fit at all. They fell off people's noses and got in their mouths, offering little to no protection against air pollution or infectious aerosols.

Made in the USA

The family returned to the United States in 2014. Richard's lab notebook brimmed with respirator ideas. He expanded his network to assemble a world-class advisory team. He connected with suppliers of the advanced materials needed to build a better respirator.

Several months of brainstorming, designing, and prototyping passed. Then there was a breakthrough.

Richard often has more than one project going at a time. He realized that an origami he was exploring for a different project could be adapted to a respirator. And at that moment, the Airgami respirator was born.

After hundreds of prototypes were made to refine the design and make it manufacturable, Air99 LLC was formed and patents filed.

QuickFire Challenge

In 2019, the Airgami respirator was entered into the Reimagining Respiratory Protection QuickFire Challenge.

The Challenge was sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), which is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) within the U.S. Federal Government.

Their aim was to crowdsource a next-generation N95 respirator that was:

  • Suitable for all populations and ages
  • Effective in preventing infection in case of pandemic
  • 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 Challenge and Richard traveled to Washington, DC to receive the trophy and $100,000 grant. Nine weeks later, COVID-19 struck.

Wildfires Rage

In 2020, California, Oregon, and Colorado saw the worst wildfires in their recorded histories. Clouds of hazardous smoke billowed into the atmosphere, affecting millions of people hundreds of miles down-wind.

Airgami was tested to determine its effectiveness against these conditions and was proven to be an N95-grade respirator by independent laboratory testing, in-house fit-testing, and months field testing including during smoky wildfire conditions when AQI was > 450.

Airgami Is Ready

Air99 teamed with contract manufacturers to begin production and respond quickly against the triple threats of pandemic, wildfire smoke, and air pollution.

Now, after great effort and perseverance, the Airgami respirator is ready. The landscape of respiratory protection is forever changed. And because of that, we can all breathe easier.


All images Copyright © 2020 Richard Gordon.