During Lockdown we were presented with numerous opportunities to collaborate on InnovateUK Covid-19 tech for good initiatives. A good example came in July, when we partnered with former GKN Aerospace executive Paul Perera on an exciting project. Paul heard that Newicon had been working on a similar R&D project in a different sector and that we would be a good technology partner for this ambitious project — a project that may well prove to play a significant part in the world's fight against a global pandemic.
The adventure started when a nurse, Valerie Bednar, spoke to us about the reality of nursing in hospitals during the pandemic and the sheer wastage due to the single-use masks and subsequent cost to the government for these masks. Not to mention the fact that they were not as effective as they could be due to a poor fit and the material.
How do you provide a N95-grade mask that is both safe, comfortable and able to be produced at scale and on-demand? Well, you use cutting-edge digital and manufacturing techniques.
Newicon, along with a number of partners, all played their part in developing initial digital and product design concepts and supporting technologies to assist with the grant and get potential buyers — such as the NHS — excited. There are many parts to the solution, from advanced facial recognition, a mobile app with intuitive user experience, through to algorithms that match the face to the mask dimensions and readies the 3D printers.
Then of course there are environmental considerations for the materials used, highly regulated medical safety, assembly and logistical challenges, testing and more. It's safe to say this wasn't going to be easy, but we all love a challenge!
To add to the complexity, this whole project had to come together during the lockdown — an experience was anything but a walk in the park for many of us. Mark, our Digital Strategy Director, ended up working many-a-weekend, trying to get this project off the ground, on top of his existing Newicon client commitments, dealing with the office closure and other business challenges that the pandemic brought. In collaboration with Paul and the wider group of partners, Mark and the team here at Newicon progressed branding and app design and shaped the pitch deck for the initial grant.
The workflow we developed and put forward to InnovateUK was so well received that the competition score far exceeded typical scores. We had validation that the solution MyMaskFit proposed was outstanding and had great potential. But it would only work if we could develop the technology from proof of concept into an enterprise solution that can scale.
The process was a real roller coaster, particularly with the restrictions of lockdown thrown into the mix. We had video calls with university academics up and down the country, even calls with Google's technology team. The search for technologies and available IP to help accelerate the project saw us work with multiple partners. And Newicon hosted Design Thinking workshops to ideate and validate both the physical mask and the digital solution — using online tools such as Miro to bring together ideas from technology leaders, UX designers, engineers and professors from around the world.
Fast forward a few months though, and MyMaskFit has now secured further investment and is funded to in excess of £1.3 million at the time of writing, with further investment opportunities still being explored. This means we can ensure a full end-to-end design, digital, manufacturing and distribution solution.
MyMaskFit will focus on producing masks at FFP3 standard, which filter 99% of aerosols. That’s the standard recommended in healthcare settings where there is a risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Beyond the pandemic, the potential for this technology is vast. If we can help our front line workers feel safer and more comfortable at work, whilst helping the NHS deliver this solution at scale and costing less compared to the current mask solution, then we will be thrilled. But that will hopefully just be the beginning of the journey, as there are dentistries, private health centres and also office/factory workers and vulnerable people across the world which can benefit from MyMaskFit. This truly is an idea with global potential and can solve a huge problem brought about by this awful pandemic.
The work for all partners involved with MyMaskFit kicked off in November and will see Newicon develop an initial mobile app as fast as we feasibly can. During that time we’ll continue to refine the true-depth image recognition implementation for iOS and later explore solutions for Android. Later in the project we will integrate workflows with the supply chain and look at how we offer a better user experience to mask users during the product lifecycle.
The wider use case for such pioneering image recognition technology and the manufacturing process is very exciting, so no matter how the pandemic plays out, we know we are working on industry first solutions which will pave the way for future innovation.
This project and other recent client/grant wins — more on that later — has seen Newicon hit the recruitment boards hard. Something we would never have imagined when the pandemic hit. However, we are delighted to have now employed a new project manager and a team of additional developers to help us develop these exciting technologies. We are itching to show off a PoC (Proof of Concept) and will share progress as we go.
You can check out news and development on the Newicon social channels and blog. Please do visit and follow MyMaskFit on LinkedIn HERE – and look out for a shiny new MyMaskFit website; coming soon.
We're really proud to be involved – thank you to all those who allowed us to be part of this journey – we truly hope it can make a difference as we continue the fight against the pandemic.
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