PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ask Josh Levin about his company's foray into producing personal protective equipment, and he will be quick to clarify what his product is and what it is not.
"The fabric face mask is personal protection, but it's not a medical product," the CEO of LympheDivas said recently.
"What we normally manufacture are true medical devices. But the masks are not something like an N95 medical mask. This is more something people can do to reduce the risk, but, at least in my personal assessment, I don't see fabric masks as a true surgical mask or a true PPE."
In fact, fairly early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, Levin looked into whether LymphDivas, which produces high-quality compression apparel for cancer patients, could pivot to producing "true PPE" to help meet a growing demand for equipment for front-line medical workers and first responders. But he decided that the manufacturing specs for true medical grade equipment were not a good fit for his company.
"The more I learned, the more I doubted the things out there people were calling PPEs are true PPEs," he said. "Even little things like putting a filter in there. … That's great, but the mask is still not sealed. And air will find the easiest way to get in.
"I don't like living in a world of marketing language. I like living in a world of effectiveness. Putting a filter in is a marketing tool, but that doesn't jibe with my way of doing business."
That does not mean that the kind of cloth mask PPE LympheDivas can produce are unimportant. On the contrary, they are a critical part of the public health strategy employed by the commonwealth to reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Levin and LympheDivas want to be part of that effort, and he is hoping the commonwealth's COVID-19 Intrapreneur Challenge can help the company develop and market its own, more comfortable take on the suddenly ubiquitous face coverings.
The Intrapreneur Challenge is a statewide collaboration between the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and North Adams-based Lever, a business accelerator and innovation support organization.
Companies from around the commonwealth will compete in the program announced on Tuesday that is intended to "activate, connect and focus companies as they pivot production capabilities to produce materials necessary to combat the pandemic," according to the MassTech Collaborative news release announcing the competition.
Finalists will be matched with experts and mentors to help them develop products and compete in a final "virtual pitch" event with a $25,000 prize going to the winner.
"We applaud Lever for demonstrating its leadership through this innovative approach to activating and focusing businesses who will be critical to increasing the supplies of necessary protective equipment," Massachusetts Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealey said.
Lever CEO Jeffrey Thomas said he reached out to the MassTech Collaborative early on because the Westborough-based non-profit has enjoyed having a partner in Western Mass in the past.
"Patrick Larkin [at the MassTech Collaborative] had the idea of trying to activate smaller companies and entrepreneurs who want to help," Thomas said. "The original idea was, can we do a hackathon or something. … And then we realized maybe the intrapreneur challenge that we tried last year was a better fit."
The first round of the challenge is open to Massachusetts companies that have registered with the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team program as of May 15 with the intention of making general-use face masks. Final submissions are due June 12.
"Intrapreneurs," unlike the better known entrepreneurs, are innovators who develop new ideas from within a company; the term entered the lexicon in the late 1970s, according to Merriam-Webster. Lever's inaugural Intrapreneur Challenge last fall awarded $25,000 to employees at LTI Smart Glass in Pittsfield.
LympheDivas' Levin was a runner-up in last year's competition but benefited from the program even without taking the grand prize.
"It was a phenomenal experience working with Brent [Filson] and Jeffrey and the team at Lever," Levin said. "We've always been a private company. So learning a little more about the venture capitalist world and hearing feedback from venture capitalists was eye-opening for me to learn that side of entrepreneurship."
Levin will take some of those lessons into the COVID-19 Intrapreneurship Challenge and — win or lose — into his launch of LympheDivas' new masks.
"Lots of people are making masks out there," Levin said. "It's more about people finding the one they like — whether it's from a company they like or they like the way it looks or it's a little more comfortable. It's a personal choice.
"We want to give people another option and one that's from an American-made, American-based company."
And Levin said that the production of cloth masks dovetails with the mission of LympheDivas.
"Unfortunately, we're in this position where we'll have to wear masks for a while," Levin said. "We're trying to both help educate people and reduce the risk of transmission.
"With our [compression] garments we've been selling, compliance is a huge part of what our garments are. The idea fits well with our ethos and what we've been doing. Much like with compression, wearing masks has negative aspects to it that are inherent with it. It's more about what can we do to make it a little more reasonable for you to want to wear it for a short period of time."
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