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The Kiwi face mask breathing new life into clean air

Combining the power of US capital and Kiwi engineering, O2O2 Facewear is on the forefront of anti-pollution technology. Jihee Junn talks to CEO Dan Bowden about how the future of filtration is transparent. 

In densely populated megacities like Beijing, surgical face masks have become a regular sight. But despite their near ubiquity, woven cloth masks are largely ineffective, causing some to seek out more advanced ways to reduce harmful airborne exposure.

While they may seem banal, face masks have evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry, one that more than a handful of businesses have been keen to get in on. 3M, for example, now offer a range of pollution mask models made from non-woven cloth, while startups like idMASK have opted for an air-tight, silicon-sealed solution.

But as O2O2 Facewear CEO Dan Bowden puts it, most products in the face mask industry are providing “analogue solutions for a digital world”, something which his company is hoping to change. Styled in London and New York but created in New Zealand, high-tech O2O2 masks are redefining the burgeoning respirator market. I talked to Bowden about the journey so far.

O2O2 MARKETING IMAGE (SUPPLIED)

How did O2O2 Facewear start and what was your inspiration behind creating this product?

All three founders of O2O2 experienced air pollution and the failures of the current technology separately. I was living in London and was aware of the little recognised public health crisis due to air pollution. Experts estimate there are some 10,000 deaths every year in the UK from air pollution. However, there was a paucity of information to enable community understanding and create a personal connection to the issue.

Our CTO, Jerry Mauger, wore masks and respirators on a daily basis and knew deeply of the discomfort and fundamental flaws in the technology from a user’s perspective. He wanted a better solution for him as a user.

But for our CMO, Ilya Vensky, the issue was more personal. Ilya was one of the first to introduce western brands to China. However, living there was resulting in such serious health issues for his family that they were forced to move. Luckily for us, it was to New Zealand.

O2O2 Facewear culminated when Jerry struck upon the idea that there was an opportunity to leverage the emerging properties of nanofibers, recent advancements in battery technologies, and advanced computer modelling to create a new solution for those at risk of air pollution. Over two years, he iterated and evolved the design, working with one of the co-founders of Auckland company Revolution Fibres.

O2O2 Facewear originates from New Zealand, but you guys took the plunge and went overseas. What was your reasoning behind doing this and how have you found the experience so far?

While the company is New York domiciled, the R&D and innovation remains here in New Zealand and will do so for the foreseeable future. But the catalyst for moving the company to the US was an investment from a joint venture between BMW and Global Venture Capital group, SOSV.

The experience has been beyond our expectations. The investment and relocation has opened doors which were otherwise closed to a company of our size, maturity, and geographic location. A good example of this is the partnership we formed with the US Navy who seconded an engineer to our team. By basing myself and the company in New York and the R&D team in Auckland, we’ve been able to marry up US capital and global networks to New Zealand creativity and engineering.

O2O2 CO-FOUNDER JERRY MAUGER WEARING AN ENGINEERING PROTOTYPE (SUPPLIED)

So how does technology actually work? 

First, it’s probably helpful to understand the flaws associated with existing solutions which may provide context as to why a change is needed. Our various competitors effectively rely on 1960s technologies, which are highly dependent on a tight seal around the user’s nose and mouth. This creates a host of other user issues such as the rebreathing of hot humid air, fogging of glasses, smearing of make-up and incompatibility with facial hair.

Our competitors really are dinosaurs, providing users with analogue solutions for a digital world. By virtue of this rehashed and simplistic design, they can’t collect or communicate data and they can’t interact to inform users they’re protected.

O2O2 Facewear flips the whole solution on its head. Jerry has designed a powered solution which cleans the air of pollutants and pathogens using the nanofibers developed with Revolution Fibres. The facewear then engineers the air by using a fan to create positive air pressure behind a clear shield to protect the user without needing any seal.

What sort of thought went into the current design of O2O2 Facewear? 

We’re all big adherents of design thinking, which when you strip out the jargon is just a process of having strong empathy with the user and thinking deeply about how and why the user interacts with the product. An example of design thinking in our product is the use of a clear shield because we believe that this enables human connections like the ability to smile and communicate.

The other foundation of our design is that Jerry has led a highly scientific approach. We all believe that the product needs to be subject to a high degree of scientific rigour and that our claims should be validated by third parties. This has led us to a great relationship with AUT who have tested our claims. We’re strong advocates of open innovation.

Obviously, O2O2 Facewear is much more efficient at filtering pollution than your regular face mask, but the big question for consumers is, is it actually comfortable and easy to wear?

Definitely. In terms of comfort, the lack of seal results in no rebreathing of hot humid air that you’ve just exhaled and no longer do you have a tight, restrictive mask pulling on sensitive areas of your face.

As for ease of use, the facewear can be put on as easily as a pair of sunglasses, and as we don’t have any need for a complicated fit test like our competitors. You can be protected in an instant and without any training.

“THE FACEWEAR CAN BE PUT ON AS EASILY AS A PAIR OF SUNGLASSES.” (SUPPLIED)

Air quality around the world is constantly deteriorating which is what’s necessitated a technology like O2O2 Facewear to emerge. But what would you like to see from our governments and businesses in order to help change that for the sake of our environment? 

I should probably state that this technology isn’t restricted to environmental pollutants in megacities like Beijing or London. This technology can equally be used in other polluted environments, such as hospital operating theatres, construction sites, and even battlefields.

The first step for me is encapsulated by the Louis D. Brandeis quote that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, which means that the first step in making change is creating transparency around the issues and the sources of the problems we’re facing.

I believe that true, long-term change comes when we as a society can create a personal connection to a problem and we, as individuals, take responsibility for that positive change. It doesn’t often come from having a solution thrust upon us. It’s up to us as consumers and community members to lead our politicians into making the changes we want to see.

With that said, from a selfish point of view, I’d like to see the government provide incentives, particularly R&D grants, for those of us seeking to solve these big issues. The overarching government goal should be to internalise the distortive externalities that companies and individuals benefit from, as they currently seek to do so via cap and trade policies. Or put more simply, making sure the polluter pays.

However, this brings me full circle. In order to effectively close these externalities, you first need to have transparency around the impacts. That’s why O2O2 Facewear has an ambition to embed our facewear with pollution sensors which can thereby create city-wide data that can shine a light on the problem.

A CLEAR SHIELD IS USED IN THE DESIGN TO ENABLE OTHERS TO READ FACIAL EXPRESSIONS. (SUPPLIED)

Are there any specific countries or markets that you’re currently targetting?

The obvious market is China where there are a billion masks sold every year. The market is growing at 20% a year and will be a $1.5 billion market in five years. But what’s surprised us has been the flood of enquiries from South Korea, who face many of the same problems. Koreans are already making fan-made YouTube videos of the O2O2 product.

Lastly, tell us about a Kiwi start-up or business that you really admire right now.

I really like what Kode Biotech is doing. They’re about to explode on the world stage and when they do, they’re going to make every one of us proud to be Kiwis.


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