Wearing a face mask to protect your health – and others – is the new normal. The problem is finding a mask that fits to a “T.”
Obex Health CEO Forrest Satterfield and Dr. Kanti Sunkavalli may have solved that problem. Obex creates custom-made, digitally fitted masks that meld to every “nook and cranny” of one’s face. The secret is a unique crafting process that conforms to facial contours.
Since May, Obex has sold hundreds of masks, with most going to health care providers nationwide. The company has given several medical providers and nonprofits a discount, with a recent shipment going to a California nonprofit.
“Once a year, medical providers must be checked to make sure they’re wearing the correct mask for their face,” said Sunkavalli, a physician turned entrepreneur.
With the pandemic spreading in March, an ill-fitting face mask was one more thing for Dr. Jennifer Hess to worry about. The ER physician quickly added the Obex mask to her personal arsenal for protecting herself and preventing transmission of the novel coronavirus.
“The struggle is when PPE supplies aren’t always available,” said Hess, who graduated from UAB Medical School in 2001 and was an ER physician at UAB Hospital from 2018 to June 2020. “COVID-19 is one of those viruses that is hard to contain unless you wear a mask. We know that consistently wearing masks keeps emergency providers from getting infected. With my Obex mask, I can be confident I’ve got my own PPE. This will help keep me safe and not spread the virus.
“When I’m using it, I can throw it in my bag, and it doesn’t get squished,” said Hess, who will soon begin working in the Emergency Department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “I put the mask in a Ziploc® bag and it holds its shape. Vanderbilt currently has adequate PPE but is flexible in allowing providers to secure personalized PPE as well.”
The Obex mask is highly protective, the CEO said.
“The big difference in our mask and others is that a cloth or fabric mask prevents only other people from being infected,” Satterfield said. “Ours prevents you from being infected and you from infecting others.”
Using innovation, high tech to fight coronavirus
Obex combines custom-molded silicone with high-tech 3D printing to make a “100% impermeable” mask.
The inventive design is the brainchild of Satterfield, who, at 25, is a rising star at the Birmingham “think tank” Innovation Depot. A biomedical engineer who makes custom 3D-printed knee and wrist braces, Satterfield went through dozens of material suppliers, custom processes and mask designs to reach the final product decisions with Sunkavalli. The comfortable, medical-grade protection is customizable for every business or customer preference, they said.
In March, Satterfield and Sunkavalli saw the need for PPE looming on the horizon. Sunkavalli recognized mask safety as an emergent need for the medical community and public. He and Satterfield talked with many doctors and nurses about the national shortage of face masks and the problems faced by those wearing them 8 to 12 hours a day.
Sunkavalli’s wife, Pallavi, is an ER physician and site medical director at Coosa Valley Medical Center in Sylacauga. “As a physician, it’s close to my heart to help out as much as possible, to keep everyone safe,” he said.
From a medical view, Satterfield saw that it made sense to stop transmission through face masks.
“The safety of ventilators was a big question mark in my mind,” said Satterfield, a University Innovation Fellow who earned a B.S. in biomedical engineering at UAB in 2018. “I’m a big believer in design thinking.
“Design thinking requires you to exist in an ambiguous state,” said Satterfield, who formed Satterfield Technologies in 2014. “I made no assumptions about what the solution should be or that I fully understood the problem we were solving. By interviewing people from different points of view – doctors, nurses, front-line workers – I created a solid definition for what problem we were solving and how our users needed us to solve it.”
Satterfield rapidly built prototypes of masks and got them into user’s hands, recorded feedback and made new masks based on comments. He repeated this until reaching a point where initial users were satisfied.
“What we immediately assume about health care is that the best, universal way to do something is already being used,” he said. “But there are lots of design problems in health care. A lot of times, people are focused on the solution rather than the problem.”
Birthing the Obex mask
Satterfield’s office at Innovation Depot already had 3D scanners and printers for making state-of-the-art braces. Those were used to help produce face masks with the tailor-made fit. Customers with an iPhone X or newer model can download the Bellus3D Face App from the App Store. They can select the “Face+Neck” option, then take a scan and unlock it for .99 cents. They can then export an HD version of the picture to Obex. Customers can schedule a 3D scan at the Obex Health Office at Innovation Depot, or an Obex employee can perform 3D scans for several people at a home or business for a small fee.
Obex makes masks in many colors and can add a corporate logo to the front cover. Each N95 filter lasts one week, which saves money. For those with a high-exposure risk needing more frequent filter replacements – health providers, teachers and customer-facing employees – Obex Health has a discounted subscription plan that automatically ships filters.
The high-grade silicone rim makes the mask easy to wear, Sunkavalli said. The mask clings to the face because it’s made for that person. There’s no bunching or gaps around the sides to allow entry of COVID-19, he said.
“The silicone we use is designed to be worn a very long time,” Sunkavalli said. “They’re also practical. You can disinfect them with soap and water every day. The filter only has to be replaced weekly.”
Finding a protective mask for children is a challenge, said Sunkavalli, whose kids are 7 and 9.
“With a custom mask, no matter how small or large the face – you always have a perfect fit,” Sunkavalli said.
The Obex mask is receiving positive feedback as demand grows for the product made with materials from America.
Creations whose time has come
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, the need to protect one’s family – and self – is ever-present.
Hess said her Obex mask – in Vanderbilt University colors – provides a “unique opportunity to be prepared.”
“I don’t think that COVID-19 is going to go away anytime soon,” said Hess, who with her husband, Dr. Erik Hess, trained at and then practiced on faculty at the Mayo Clinic for 15 years. “Wearing a mask can go a long way toward keeping the people of Alabama from contracting this disease.”
For Satterfield, the desire to keep his community safe is personal. His parents – deemed high-risk for their ages and because his father has Parkinson’s disease – wear Obex masks.
His parents live in Huntsville, but, even though he wants to see them, he won’t go home, he said. “The risks are too high. It’s really difficult.”
In the meantime, Satterfield gives back by devoting his life to the mission of Obex, often working 14 hours or more each day.
This young entrepreneur is dreaming of more ways to protect the public by providing state-of-the-art face masks and braces.
“I’ve always had it in mind to be an entrepreneur,” Satterfield said. “In biomedical engineering, none of my ideas had been done yet. I see Obex as being a Johnson & Johnson health care-style company with many product lines.”
For details about how to order an Obex mask, email Satterfield.