Meet the Innovators: Aaron, Allysa, Elyse, and Inez of ClearMask
SIL: Tell us about your project; what are you trying to do?
ClearMask: We’re making healthcare more human by developing the ClearMask, the first, full-face transparent facemask that can help reduce medical errors from miscommunication while increasing hospital disability compliance and patient satisfaction. The ability to see and express facial expressions helps improve understanding, reduce anxiety, and develop more human connections within healthcare and beyond.
SIL: Why did you decide to start this? Where did the idea come from?
Allysa Dittmar, Co-Founder, KSAS ’14, JHSPH ’17: In 2015, I had to have surgery. Because I am Deaf, I rely on my native language, American Sign Language (ASL), and visual cues such as facial expressions and lip-reading. When I entered the operating room, everyone was wearing surgical face masks. With masks on everyone’s faces, I was unable to effectively communicate and did not know what they were saying about my body. Even with sign language interpreters, deaf patients like me are unable to communicate well when surgical masks are used because they block the face, which is one of the most critical parts of ASL. We miss out on critical language markers and visual cues when standard and semi-transparent masks are used, increasing the risk of miscommunication.
SIL: What would you consider success for your project and how would the world be different if your project is successful?
ClearMask: Our goal is to improve as many lives as possible with our masks, especially for those who heavily rely on visual communication, including the deaf and hard of hearing, children, and limited English proficiency patients. These groups face communication barriers in healthcare and are at high risk for miscommunication. Everyone benefits from visual communication, since non-verbal communication already accounts for over half of how we communicate.
SIL: What have you accomplished so far?
Elyse Heob, Co-Founder, Carey & JHSPH ’18: We’ve had a busy year! We filed our provisional patent, completed the regional National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps customer validation program, and started the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University, the Village Capital program at Gallaudet University, and Accelerate Baltimore at the Emerging Technology Centers. We recently finalized our late-stage prototype and are working with Harbor Designs and Manufacturing for mass-manufacturing, while simultaneously working on expedited FDA approval with TEDCO’s mdPACE program.
SIL: What are you enjoying most about your participation in the Social Innovation Lab?
Inez Lam, Co-Founder, WSE ’16 & current BME PhD Candidate: We are very grateful to be a part of the Social Innovation Lab community, and we especially enjoy sharing ideas and learning from other like-minded individuals who want to bring about positive social change in Baltimore and beyond. Even though the ventures in our cohort vary widely, everyone has been incredibly welcoming and supportive of each other. Seeing all the groups working towards building their venture with such passion inspires us to work even harder towards our own goals.
SIL: Tell us about yourselves! What got you interested in this issue? Any work experience or past professional or life experience which informs your work now?
Aaron Hsu, CEO and Co-Founder, KSAS ’14, JHSPH ’15: Before starting ClearMask, I spent a few years working with medical device companies and clinical studies, and I noticed a common problem: there is often a disconnect between the engineers building the device and the patients for whom they were solving the problem. I saw companies who often did not seek input from the users and beneficiaries of their devices and would not realize a problem until the device was already developed.
At ClearMask, however, we are constantly soliciting feedback from all stakeholders throughout all parts of development. We want to make a mask that is inclusive and benefits everyone, from deaf and hard of hearing consumers to physicians themselves, while ensuring that the masks are comfortable and can be mass produced effectively at a low cost. Even though I personally know why visual and accessible communication matters (from my Deaf partner of eight years and my family members who do not speak English), there is still so much we do not know. Our team is constantly collecting feedback, data, and inputs and actively seeking to test our hypotheses and validate our assumptions.
SIL: What’s your favorite thing to do in Baltimore?
ClearMask: Our favorite activity to do together as a team is to try new restaurants in Baltimore! We love spending some downtime together over great food. P.S.: check out Mera Kitchen Collective, one of our cohort members — we are a fan of their food!
SIL: Why did you choose to attend Hopkins?
Inez Lam: I chose to attend Hopkins for its people and the wealth of opportunities. By studying in the Biomedical Engineering program here, first as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student, I’ve been able to gain hands-on experience with engineering design, research, and medical technology. Johns Hopkins is unique in that it truly sits at the intersection of engineering and health/medicine. It is exciting to be a part of this environment and learn from so many different people that are at the cutting-edge of their fields. As a team, the connections we’ve made and the opportunities we’ve gained through Johns Hopkins have been tremendously valuable to our growth as a company.
SIL: What advice do you have for would-be social entrepreneurs or anyone thinking about starting a venture?
Elyse Heob: We believe that finding the right team of people is essential. You can have the best idea in the world, but the execution all comes down to the team’s leadership and management. It’s quite difficult to do everything on your own, and having a like-minded, trustworthy, and reliable team is a tremendous asset. It helps to ensure that the team has its best interest at heart and that everyone works well together. Clear communication is key!