The HelloMask project unmasks humans in hospitals

PPE Portrait Project c. Mary Beth Heffernan 2015, Photo credit: Marc Campos

PPE Portrait Project c. Mary Beth Heffernan 2015, Photo credit: Marc Campos

A collaborative effort between the EPFL's EssentialTech program and the Federal Laboratory for Materials Testing and Research (Empa) in St.Gallen, the HelloMask project is working to create a new type of material that could be used in the development of a transparent medical mask that is unique in its kind.

In hospitals, the wearing of medical masks by nursing staff is one of the most common prophylactic practices. Though essential for infection control, the wearing of a mask is a major challenge when it comes to establishing a reassuring relationship with patients, especially children, as it hides many of the facial expressions that are part of key of nonverbal communication. The HelloMask project has taken up the challenge by developing a unique transparent medical mask.

The concept of a transparent medical mask was developed by Diane Baatard, a storyteller for sick children who often works in palliative care, and Mr. Sacha Sidjanski, a project manager in the Life Sciences at the EPFL, who has devoted a good part of her free time to the project. Under the latter’s impetus, the project has gradually been implemented in the EssentialTech unit, an EPFL school program. Klaus Schönenberger, director of the EssentialTech program, was immediately impressed by HelloMask: "I was immediately struck by the extremely concrete nature of the project and its positive impact on the lives of all patients. But I also realized that this type of innovative mask could also be helpful in the Global South, where epidemics such as Ebola and other types of hemorrhagic fevers are rife. In the 2014, for example, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Doctors Without Borders medical staff expressed frustration at having to accompany seriously ill patients with clothing that covered their entire body and face.

Driven by his enthusiasm, the initial core team submitted the HelloMask project for the 2016 Debiopharm-Inartis Challenge, whose theme was "quality of life of the patient receiving treatment." This annual competition, organized by French-speaking Swiss economic actors and the Inartis Foundation, promotes innovation in Switzerland. Of the 35 projects in the running, the jury awarded HelloMask first prize. This recognition by experts in the medical field propelled the nascent project to its start-up phase.

It was at this time that Thierry Pelet, with his ten years of industrial experience in the development of medical masks, joined the team to take charge of the project. As project manager, Thierry coordinates the research dimensions, regulatory compliance, intellectual property and all of the system engineering around the development of the mask. "Though the concept is incredible simple, its realization requires precise control at all stages. It is not merely a question of carrying out basic research work, but of developing a new type of medical device whose quality, cost and technical specifications are in line with the requirements of the medical field."

Upon receiving the Debiopharm-Inartis Award, a fundraising campaign was launched based on a two-year budget. The strategy was to target philanthropic funds and foundations that support innovation. To date, several foundations and patrons have already contributed to this project, whose human impact is extremely high.

One of the keys to the project’s success lies in the development of a new kind of material that provides both transparency and filtration properties --- a veritable technological challenge. A joint effort was therefore established between the EPFL and Professor René Rossi’s unit at the Federal Laboratory for Materials Testing and Research (Empa) in St. Gallen. This institute, which is member of the federation of Federal Polytechnic Schools, is putting all its know-how in service of the project.

Three research scientists from Empa - Davide Barana, Géraldine Guex and Giuseppino Fortunato - are currently working to develop this unique material. The results of the initial tests, which use innovative new techniques and natural, biodegradable materials, are quite encouraging.

The other key ingredient of the project's success is, of course, the mask’s compatibility with the needs of its future users. No man is a prophet in his country. As such, the first prototypes must be evaluated another canton, per an agreement with a large university hospital.

If successful, the Lausanne team is considering several other possible uses for the original concept. "In addition to the medical world, we think our mask could be useful in other areas, and that the materials developed for it could have other applications," says Thierry Pelet.