While studying abroad in Singapore as a UW-Madison mechanical engineering undergraduate student in 2013, Max Bock-Aronson experienced heightened levels of air pollution firsthand.
He also happened to be taking an engineering course on air pollution, where he was learning, among other things, about the mechanics of filtration.
“I was learning that the masks that people commonly wore in Southeast Asia, such as cloth masks and surgical masks, aren’t actually very effective at filtration,” he says. “So for dealing with poor air quality, these masks unfortunately don’t provide much benefit.”
On the other hand, the N95 masks that are highly effective at filtration can be uncomfortable, and Bock-Aronson didn’t find them to fit seamlessly into his daily life.
“I didn’t like the N95s—they looked so sterile. It made me feel like I was in a clinic,” he says. “I wanted something that looked like a cotton mask and was a better fit for my lifestyle but that offered the protection of the N95 masks.”
That initial idea was the genesis for what would eventually become the B2 Mask, an innovative, reusable face mask that is available for purchase from Breathe99, a Minneapolis-based startup company that Bock-Aronson co-founded.
TIME magazine selected the B2 Mask as one of the best inventions of 2020, a year when the global COVID-19 pandemic thrust face masks into the spotlight as consumer products.
Bock-Aronson says his UW-Madison engineering education, and the opportunities he capitalized on as a student, played a crucial role developing his entrepreneurial skills.
For example, when the College of Engineering announced a unique essay competition, Bock-Aronson seized the opportunity. The competition asked students to write essays detailing how they would improve the college if they had $5,000 to use.
Bock-Aronson proposed creating a new student organization, called Transcend Engineering, that would offer a place for engineering students—as well as students from across UW-Madison—to come together and learn about innovation and entrepreneurship in a collaborative, multidisciplinary environment. “I thought this would help students get out of the silos of their classrooms and meet students from other backgrounds and majors,” he says. “In addition, students could meet mentors and workshop their ideas for new ventures.”
The college selected Bock-Aronson’s essay and awarded him $5,000 to create Transcend Engineering. Working with Stephen Looney (BSMSE ‘13), Kristine Engel (BSME ‘13), and Michael Eggert (BBA ‘12), Bock-Aronson founded the new student org in 2013. Transcend Engineering remains active today, and it organizes the largest student-run innovation competition on in the country, among other activities.
And the new Transcend Engineering org enabled Bock-Aronson to connect with other students and discuss his ideas for designing a face mask for air pollution. Excited by these brainstorming sessions, Bock-Aronson designed a rough prototype of a mask and entered it in the College of Engineering’s 2014 Innovation Days competition.
He took second place in the competition and was awarded some prize money.
“That experience was the first thing that made me think this mask idea might be worth pursuing further,” Bock-Aronson says. “Without Innovation Days, I don’t think Breathe99 would exist today. The competition was so valuable in providing me with a framework for entrepreneurship, and I’m really happy that Transcend Engineering is filling that role today. Having these opportunities for students helps foster creativity and innovative thinking. Not every student project is going to become a successful business, but these hands-on learning experiences prepare UW-Madison students to go out into the world and create things.”
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Bock-Aronson went on to work as a mechanical design engineer at product design consulting firms. In his spare time, he continued to tinker with his mask design as a hobby and founded the business with two friends, Coleman Rollins and Joel Valdez.
In March 2019, he decided to move to part-time in his job at Worrell, a Minneapolis-based design firm, to focus on bringing the mask to market. But soon after, he faced a setback when the team’s first crowdfunding campaign for the mask failed to reach its fund-raising goal. The first Kickstarter was a major setback and the team was considering closing the company
Then, in February 2020, he watched as the novel coronavirus started spreading rapidly around the world. “It was becoming more and more obvious that COVID-19 was going to be a big problem,” he says. “And I had designed a mask that, although it was initially focused on air pollution, I thought could be helpful in fighting against the coronavirus.”
Spurred on by the pandemic, Bock-Aronson decided it was time to put all his energy into making his face mask a reality. In March 2020, he transitioned to full-time at Breathe99 in order to bring the mask to market.
With the help of a small but committed team of friends, Breathe99 launched a new Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in April 2020, and this time, the project quickly surpassed its goal, generating $500,000 in pre-orders in 20 days.
“We moved very quickly from a high-fidelity prototype in April to starting the first deliveries of a manufactured product to customers in June 2020,” Bock-Aronson says.
A key innovation of the B2 mask is the flexible, rubber-like face piece that creates an airtight seal on the wearer’s face. The patent-pending face piece holds two replaceable filters that Bock-Aronson says are highly effective for filtration. The mask’s face piece and its fabric overlay are machine washable.
“The B2 Mask offers a very high filtration efficiency comparable to an N95 mask, but the B2 Mask is reusable and more comfortable for many people than N95 masks,” Bock-Aronson says.
Bock-Aronson says it’s an amazing feeling to see the B2 Mask on TIME magazine’s list of the best inventions of 2020.
“I was just blown away when I learned about it and I’m very grateful,” he says. “It’s particularly meaningful because our product is bringing peace of mind to people during this difficult time and that’s the whole reason we started the company in the first place.”
Author: Adam Malecek