When the coronavirus pandemic swept into the United States last winter, Alex Rattray, then a California-based software engineer, became hyper-aware of the risks posed to his roommate, who has an autoimmune deficiency as well as a lung disorder.
Rattray, a former business student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who enjoys “building things," set out to design a product that would keep him and his roommate safe from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. He found comfort in face shields and masks but still felt exposed to the illness.
“Most people these days, when they think about gold standards for protection, they think of N95 masks with face shields,” said Rattray, 28, who has since relocated to Baltimore and left his Silicon Valley tech job. “The face shield helps protect you from the spray of droplets, but of course, it doesn’t wrap around the corners of your face, and it doesn’t really prevent you from touching your face, either.”
Rattray’s new product, the Narwall, aims to provide more comfort and protection than typical face shields and masks (it was named after the narwhal and its whimsical, protruding tusk). It includes a high-efficiency filter that circulates cool, clean air in and out of the device to protect both the user and those around them, and was designed with traditional snorkeling gear in mind.
Its filter has an efficiency rating of 99.5%, according to a technical data sheet provided by its manufacturer. Standard N95 masks have filtration efficiency levels of 90% or greater, depending on how it fits on the face.
The first batch of Narwall masks — with a price tag of $85 each for now — sold out in a month, Rattray said, primarily via word-of-mouth. He has a website but hasn’t devoted much time or energy to marketing or generating social media buzz.
“I was expecting to get laughed out of the room, but people kept asking me about them and where they could buy them,” he said of the first iterations of the product. “People have been buying all over the country.”
One customer, Avery Bedows of Chicago, heard about the device from a mutual friend he shares with Rattray. He has made frequent use of the Narwall since ordering it over the summer.
“It has been a meaningful quality of life improvement,” said Bedows, adding that he wears them to doctors' appointments to safeguard himself and his health care providers. “I wanted something that would give me a large level of comfort. It’s a totally worthwhile investment.”
The mask, meant to fully cover the eyes, nose and mouth with an airtight seal, is not meant for everyday use, Rattray said. He envisions them specifically for “high-risk situations or high-risk people,” such as older adults or those considered most vulnerable to contracting serious illness as a result of the coronavirus.
But as the country experiences a resurgence of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, Rattray said he imagines some might want the Narwall during close encounters with relatives, on flights, or for trips to crowded stores or doctors' offices.
“If you’re not super worried, this is not the mask you’re going to wear,” he said. “If you’re in a specific situation, whether it’s due to age or a health condition, or if you’re generally young and healthy and going to visit parents or grandparents, those are the situations where the Narwall is going to give you peace of mind.”
Consumers who purchase the device won’t have to worry about fogging up the Narwall and will be able to easily discern whether it’s airtight or not, Rattray added. Its parts are reattachable and dishwasher safe, and can be cleaned easily with an alcohol wipe.
It also protects the eyes, which can become major points of transmission for the virus, said Dr. Ethel Weld, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. (Rattray’s significant other is a medical resident at Johns Hopkins Hospital.)
Weld, also an active infectious disease physician, said that while face shields have become standard protective barriers in several settings, she has found them to be uncomfortable.
“Innovating around anti-fog technology, in addition to snorkel technology, is definitely something practical that’s needed,” she said, “Eyes are windows directly into the mucus membrane, so integrating eye protection into masks is a novel idea.”
The Narwall is registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning that the agency is aware of the product and could hold the company, Narwall Mask LLC, accountable for failing to comply with its standards. The device does not require FDA testing or approval, meaning it was deemed as posing a low risk to consumers and can be sold to the public.
He had CPR Baltimore, an organization that assesses safety and emergency response programs, conduct a “fit test” for the Narwall, which the U.S. Department of Labor requires of employers whose workers must wear respirators on the job. The Narwall passed the pass-fail test, said Mike Goldberg, CPR Baltimore’s director of operations.
Fit testing doesn’t ensure indefinite compliance, Goldberg said, meaning the masks passed the test at that specific point in time and may not work for every person or head shape. But he noted that the four participants tested represented a variety of races, ethnicities and genders, and that Rattray did not know them before the test.
The Narwall, which launched Tuesday, comes in two sizes: small/medium and large/extra large.
Rattray said breaking even on this self-funded venture would be considered “a win.” He said he does not plan to hold seed funding rounds or partner with other investors.
“I view this as a short-term project — this is not going to be a huge financial success by any means,” he said. “This is an all-hands-on-deck effort, and if I have the capacity to make something to help people, there’s no way I was not going to work on that.”