WICHITA, Kan. (The Wichita Eagle) — As young boys in McPherson, Jared Goering and Spencer Steinert watched the development of XPRIZE — a nonprofit that hosts worldwide competitions to develop technology — with fascination and hope.
“It was kind of always a dream to be able to participate in one,” Goering said.
They now not only are participating, but they’re Top 10 finalists for a $1 million prize pool in the Next-Gen Mask Challenge after besting almost 1,000 other mask designs from 70 countries.
“We really didn’t expect to make it this far just because the competition is so fierce, but we’re obviously super excited that we did,” Goering said.
While he and Steinert hope to win — either the $500,000 grand prize or a $250,000 secondary prize — they now have a bigger goal. They said they want to take their mask to market — with or without prize money to help them do it.
“If we lose, we’ll have to be scrappy and figure it out like we’ve done before,” Steinert said.
Although the two are both relatively recent graduates from Wichita State University’s innovation design master’s program, they’ve also already had start-up and work experience.
Currently, they’re both involved with the Wonder School at WSU and in an apparel start-up called Montana Shirt Co. In the past, they started a company, Vytal, to make adhesive sports monitors that track biometrics and were part of a WSU project to create biometric temporary tattoos.
“We’re always kind of talking about the next thing to work on or what’s going on that we can jump on in the world,” Goering said.
He said this is the first XPRIZE contest they’ve entered because it’s the first time the contest and their interests had “just an awesome overlap.”
SOLVING MASK PROBLEMS
When COVID-19 began spreading across the United States early in the year, Goering and Steinert became early mask adopters and began selling face coverings through the Montana Shirt Co.
“In our opinion, the evidence was always there,” Goering said of wearing the protection.
The point of the XPRIZE contest is to solve some of the issues surrounding masks, such as slippage, fogging and heat.
No matter how great the mask technology, Goering said, “It’s all useless if people don’t want to wear it, so what makes people really want to wear it?”
That’s the premise he and Steinert started with for their design. They said the design is much more than about appearances.
“It doesn’t matter how cool your rendering looks if no one’s going to want to wear it in real life,” Steinert said.
As they started making their first prototype in July, they began asking friends for their opinions.
“We were making them give us the harshest feedback we could,” Steinert said.
He said the importance of feedback is the biggest lesson he and Goering have learned from this.
“If you don’t get customer and user feedback early and often, then whatever you make isn’t going to fill the need for the problem you’re solving.”
The two decided their initial approach with the masks was not the right one.
“We came up with some pretty crazy ideas, like putting speakers in a mask and doing all these really cool, complex things with technology,” Steinert said.
At some point, XPRIZE moved up the contest deadline by a month.
“That kind of gave us a little bit of a hint that they’re looking for something they can turn around quickly once the competition ends,” Steinert said.
So he and Goering cut back on some of their wilder ideas. In fact, they took a bare-bones approach.
“Submitting such a simple design was a little intimidating because we knew they were going to receive so many cool things,” Steinert said.
“Our biggest key selling point with the mask is the fact that it’s actually two pieces merged together.”
He said the way the fabric flexes when people talk prevents slipping, and there are nose bridges that rest on either cheek “to further mold to your face.”
The way the mask is designed, it allows for a couple of different kind of fabrics — one on the outside that’s thicker and more protective, one on the inside that’s more breathable and cool next to a person’s mouth.
The bridges and the separate pieces of fabric prevent air from channeling upwards and fogging glasses.
Also, the mask can use a variety of filters, including ones that are 95% efficient.
“Then going forward, we can actually pour more research into better filtration mediums,” Steinert said.
He said customers can keep their same masks and simply insert a new filtration device.
“So that’s another kind of interesting selling point.”
Steinert said he and Goering will continue to work on fabric choices as well.
When the two became Top 25 finalists, they started getting some help from a South Carolina fabric company and a Washington, D.C., filtration media producer. Now, as Top 10 finalists, they’re also getting help from Honeywell. Each finalist is offered help.
Goering said the goal with their mask design was to solve problems and also have “a little bit of design and fashion mixed in.”
The two are calling their mask Cyfive, the name of an imaging pigment that’s also a play on N95 masks.
Part of the competition includes a public vote, which anyone can do online at https://www.xprize.org/challenge/nextgenmask.
The deadline for voting is Nov. 25.
Regardless of the outcome, Steinert said his and Goering’s next goal will be to get their “masks on as many faces as possible.”
Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.