SCOTT NISHIMURA / DEC 31
Behind the Mask
Fort Worth Startup Launches Production of U.S.-Made N95 Masks
FORT WORTH INC.
Partners John Bielamowicz and David Baillargeon started the company in April, after hearing of shortages of imported personal protective gear for healthcare workers. After obtaining clearance in late fall of their product from the federal Centers for Disease Control, the two began production on Election Day from the warehouse, which Baillargeon’s family owns.
The two opted to produce N95 masks, for their close fit on the face and high filtration, made in the United States of materials obtained from within the country. Their aim: to help avert the need to import critically needed PPE and prevent supply chain disruptions in the future. The strategy meant months in materials procurement, design, and testing to win CDC clearance.
“This is not something you can just slap a label on there and say it’s N95,” Baillargeon said in an interview. “The process takes many, many months and a lot of testing. It took us from March until Election Day to get the approval.”
U.S. Mask is selling the masks in cartons of 540 on its web site, unitedstatesmask.com, at pricing that amounts to $2.25 per mask. The company already employs 12 people, and is about to add another 10 for a second shift, Bielamowicz and Baillargeon said. The two are calling on potential wholesale healthcare clients, where they’ve encountered skepticism of brokers and scams.
“People are so tired of hearing from brokers,” Bielamowicz said. “There’s just a lot of fraud and bad players. The first words out of our mouths are we’re a manufacturer making this in the United States.”
Bielamowicz and Baillargeon both have backgrounds in commercial real estate. Baillargeon’s family owned an Audi dealership in Fort Worth for years. When COVID hit, the two heard from friends about shortages of PPE. “Pretty much the entire supply was manufactured overseas,” Baillargeon said. “For us, the likelihood of another pandemic is not if, but when it’s going to happen again. Relying on other countries for our critical safety gear was unacceptable.”
Friends thought they were “crazy” for pursuing the idea. Even the two founders asked themselves “why the heck would we succeed,” Bielamowicz said. “David and I both didn’t really believe this pandemic would still be going by the time two guys figured out how to build a respirator.”
As the two began designing the mask, they looked at existing designs, easy to find through research.
“There’s lots of N95 design out there,” Bielamowicz said. “We kind of looked at what do we think we can build. No. 2, what kind of materials are available. A lot of our process is dictated by what kind of materials we were able to design and source, especially in the United States.”
As they attempted to find the American-made materials (N95s are made of polypropylene), they encountered immediate resistance from potential suppliers. “A lot of suppliers wouldn’t deal with us,” Bielamowicz said. “We had to prove to them we’d be here through the pandemic.”
Bielamowicz has drawn from his experience of growing up in a family business. He and Baillargeon have “just problem-solved each issue, one at a time. I grew up in my dad’s convenience store. He was always really resourceful.”
The company is producing 10,000 to 15,000 masks per day today, Bielamowicz and Baillargeon said. The company expects to outgrow its 10,000-square-foot warehouse and production facility within a few months, Baillargeon said. To help get its word out, the company before Christmas donated more than 1,000 masks to the Salvation Army of North Texas, for volunteers and clients to use
Bielamowicz and Baillargeon have footed the bill for the startup, without investors or loans, they said, declining to say what it’s cost them to get this far.
Now that they’re in production, they’re hampered by Google Ad Words’ decision not to sell Ad Words for N95, they said. “They said there’s a shortage,” Baillargeon said.
The company is also fighting misperceptions about masks. “The demand is there,” Bielamowicz said. “There’s a disconnect between the public understanding of who should have a N95, and who should buy what. The problem is you see have new entrants to the market in terms of middle men and brokers, and you have states in a free for all.”
What’s next for the company? “We’ve definitely given it a lot of thought,” Bielamowicz said. “We want to continue to make more N95. When you think about the quantity that this country is burning through right now, we’re just a drop in the bucket. We don’t intend to be just a drop in the bucket.”
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