Lever director Jeffrey Thomas, left, speaking during the virtual pitch competition with Economic Development Secretary Michael Keannely.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Speakeasy Travel Supply won the Lever COVID-19 Intrapreneur Challenge Pitch Competition with its adjustable mask.
The Centerville company was awarded the $25,000 prize Friday to help ramp up the production of the mask after a virtual pitch contest in which 11 companies shared their innovative general use face mask designs.
"We are very humbled and we are just so thankful that you guys chose our product," owner Bethany Salvon said. "We can't wait; the whole team is excited."
The competition was a partnership between a startup and innovation accelerator Lever; MassMEP, part of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnerships in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Commerce; and the Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
The participants shared their designs they hoped would be an improvement over the standard protective mask.
"If you like to feel better about the world this is a good place to be," Lever Executive Director Jeffrey Thomas said. "You will be inspired by these intrapreneurs, you will be inspired by their innovations, and you will be inspired by their desire to help others."
Thomas specified that the competition was not an entrepreneurship competition but an intrapreneurship challenge. Instead of "starting from scratch" intrapreneurs work within an existing company with preexisting resources and capabilities.
"Each of these intrapreneurs is helping their companies pivot to make general use face masks," he said. "They are pivoting to save jobs, others are creating jobs, all of them are supporting the state's response to COVID-19."
Each participant was given five minutes to make their presentation and another five for the three judges to ask questions.
Bethany and her partner Randy Kalp created Speakeasy Travel Supply and initially made a special scarf designed for travel with hidden pockets for passports and other items.
Salvon said they were making typical cotton face masks but wanted to make something better.
"We were tasked with creating a better mask. A problem-solving mask," she said. "I am happy to report that we have done it."
The scarf style mask is loose fitting and allows the user to speak while wearing it without fear of it moving or falling off. Fully adjustable elastic on the top and bottom of the mask allows the user to fit the mask to their face preventing sizing issues. No ear loops required.
With added nose wire, fogging or falling glasses is not a problem
Because it is a scarf-style mask, it can be worn as a scarf or headband so the user doesn't have to actually take the mask off of their person.
Salvon said there are other masks in the form of a neck gator or scarf but the material does not actually keep out the virus. She said their mask is made out of higher quality material that will keep out COVID-19.
The family-run business will firstly market to teachers and students, she said, and then the travel sector — its niche market. She said they will also reach out to the disabled and elderly population who may need a mask that can accommodate hearing aids.
The design and materials can change seasonally with cooler options in the summer and warmer ones for the winter and fall.
Salvon said they plan to sell their masks online like their other products.
The judges heard from 10 companies who pitched different mask designs for different applications. Masks were made out of different materials and focused on higher levels of protection, higher levels of comfort, and different design options and customization.
Others were designed out of technical paper and other high-quality materials designed to be manufactured at lower price points to supply schools and other organizations.
One mask transformed into a scarf and another mask was designed for teachers to allow wearers to speak. One mask was designed for athletes and another with animal themes for kids.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy called in to first announce runner up Diana Coluntino of UML Innovation Labs in Lowell, who designed a mask for athletes.
Before announcing the winner, Kennealy gave an overview of the state's efforts to fight COVID-19 including the economic recovery package to help stimulate growth during the pandemic.
He talked about the ramping up of the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (MERT) that helped drum up personal protective equipment development among state manufacturers. He said this challenge is an extension of the work of the MERT.
"As we see from the research that is emerging masks seem to be the most effective tool in containing the spread of COVID-19," he said. "I want to thank each and every one of you for stepping up to address this crisis putting your talents and innovation into action."
The remote pitch competition started at 1 p.m. with the actual presentations wrapping up around 3. The judges then went to a private Zoom conference to deliberate while Thomas led a general question and answer session with the participants.
The winner was announced around 3:45.
Before closing, Kennealy left all of the participants with a simple request.
"Keep innovating," he said. "This crisis is not over and we need to keep the supply of new ideas and energy and we all have to keep using our masks."
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