The COVID-19 global pandemic has unleashed an overwhelming flood of counterfeit respirators into the marketplace, especially N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs). The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), works tirelessly to identify these counterfeits, and NIOSH seeks assistance with developing improved tools to combat this problem. NIOSH is the federal agency dedicated to generating new knowledge in the field of occupational safety and health and to transferring that knowledge into practice to help workers. Within NIOSH is the National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory (NPPTL), which tests and approves N95 respirators and other respiratory products designed for occupational use. This challenge seeks your ideas for new approaches and technologies that help educate vendors and users about counterfeit respirators.
This two-phase challenge has a total prize purse of $145,000. Four Phase 1 winning teams will advance to Phase 2, where they will have over seven months to demonstrate their proposed approaches.
This challenge represents a real opportunity for the public to address counterfeit respiratory protection by reducing the number of fake N95 FFRs in the marketplace. This can be achieved if people grow more confident with recognizing authentic N95 FFRs and avoiding counterfeits.
Will you help us address this issue? If you have an idea for a new strategy that spreads the word about counterfeit respirators, please join our challenge to reduce counterfeit N95 respirators!
Note: certain eligibility restrictions apply to this challenge. Please read the Rules section at the bottom of this page to ensure that you participate in an eligible fashion.
The term “N95“ has been well publicized in the media, but few know exactly what it represents. Filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs) are a type of disposable respirator that covers the nose and mouth, and filter out particles such as dust, mist, and fumes. FFRs are divided into classes based on their filtration capabilities. “N95” is a term referring to the N95 filter class, which removes at least 95% of airborne particles. This is the standard recommended by the US federal government and scientific community for protection against the COVID-19, other airborne viruses, and particulates. Respirators that do not meet this level of filtration, as well as other key performance and quality assurance criteria, cannot be labeled with the sought-after and trademarked “N95” title. Any respirator that does not have NIOSH approval cannot use the trademarked N95.
To obtain a NIOSH approval, manufacturers must apply to NIOSH for their products and quality assurance practices to be tested and evaluated before being approved and allowed to sell their products as NIOSH-approved N95 FFRs. But since the FFR market has seen such rapid growth, there has also been a marked increase in commercial fraud activity related to these products. Counterfeit respirators are those that have not successfully undergone NIOSH testing and evaluation themselves but were specifically manufactured to mimic a respirator product that did receive NIOSH approval. These counterfeits entice consumers with low prices and features that can closely resemble authentic products.
NIOSH has created helpful resources for identifying authentic, NIOSH-approved respirators. These documents and links are highlighted in the Resources Tab and more information is available at the NIOSH website. However, some data is proprietary and where current efforts have struggled is finding the best way to disseminate and broadcast information with the public. How can information about counterfeits be made more understandable, accessible, or streamlined so that both vendors and purchasers of N95 FFRs are better informed?
The ultimate goals of this challenge are to reduce the number of counterfeit N95 FFRs the marketplace and to improve the confidence of end users who will purchase these products. Thus, if NIOSH can find a new means of communicating or navigating these helpful resources, then perhaps the proliferation of counterfeits can be stopped early on, reducing the need to police these products reactively.
The Challenge Structure
Can you help NIOSH and the public to identify counterfeits more effectively? Submit your idea for a new tool or strategy that could have a serious impact in the near future. To learn more about how to participate in this challenge and what you are expected to submit, see below.
This challenge is structured in two phases. In Phase 1, we invite you to submit a proposal for a new strategy or tool that will help combat counterfeit N95 FFRs. You will also need to specify who your target audience is and provide an action plan for how you would build out a pilot version of your idea if you are chosen to participate in Phase 2. In the evaluation period of Phase 1, six finalists will be selected to participate in a pitching round, where they will present their idea before a live judging panel followed by a Q&A session. NOTE: these pitch sessions will occur on Thursday, February 16, 2023. Please ensure you will be available that day. The specific timing of the sessions will be announced in a future update.
After these pitch sessions, up to four Phase 1 winners will be selected and awarded their prizes. They will then be asked to develop their proposed idea during Phase 2 of the challenge. During this phase, competitors are asked to generate a ‘proof of concept’ for their proposal, but not to implement their idea publicly. Competitors may organize internal user or performance tests for their solution, but should not launch the concept beyond the confines of the challenge and may not express any endorsement from the challenge sponsors. Submitting a well-thought-out project plan in Phase 1 is of great importance, as you will be expected to execute it in Phase 2. At the end of Phase 2, the judging panel will evaluate the final submissions and the ultimate prize will be awarded to the top competitor.
To be successful in this challenge, competitors must ensure that their proposals effectively address the Judging Criteria listed further below. Additionally, all competitors should keep these design considerations in mind:
Ideal strategies are proactive and relatively simple.
Proposed solutions can be based on existing approaches/technologies that have proved effective in another field or sector or they can be something entirely new.
Cost and ease of implementation are important to NIOSH.
Solutions should be relevant and engaging to the intended audience(s).
An effective strategy or tool could take many forms as long as it effectively solves this problem. Feel free to get creative and think broadly about how to address this challenge. Solutions could be as diverse as a targeted advertising campaign or an interactive app that compares FFR images to a database. Or maybe you create training materials used to help online marketplaces keep counterfeits off their platform. It is up to you to decide the best way to address this issue, so don’t feel constrained by standard approaches!
You don’t have to do this alone! Putting together a team of talented innovators or finding someone with the skills you need is easy with HeroX. When you sign up to the challenge, you can choose to compete as a team and then advertise which skills you are looking to fill.
If you are ready to begin, read on for more information about what you will need to submit, how it will be evaluated, and what prizes await those who win!
Award (# of winners)
Total Prize Purse
In addition to the cash prizes shown above, there are also non-monetary incentives available to all Phase 2 participants. Your solution/demonstration will be reviewed by NIOSH experts, and you will receive constructive feedback from the panel. Other potential non-monetary prizes could include:
An invitation to network with NIOSH partners and present at upcoming meetings
National Academies Committee on Personal Protective Equipment
Respiratory Protection Week
An opportunity to participate in NIOSH communication activities
NIOSH science blog
Social media outreach
Consultation with NIOSH about scaling and funding your winning solution
A chance to visit and tour NIOSH facilities (travel costs not included).Timeline
September 8, 2022
Phase 1 submission deadline
5pm ET on December 1, 2022
Phase 1 finalists announced
January 26, 2023
Phase 1 pitch sessions
February 16, 2023
Phase 1 winners announced and Phase 2 begins
March 2, 2023
Phase 2 Half-way check-in
May 25, 2023
Phase 2 submission deadline
5pm ET on September 28, 2023
Phase 2 winners announced
November 30, 2023
Phase 1 Judging Criteria
The solution is relevant to the chosen target audience.
The concept is likely to attract the attention of the target audience.
The solution has a high potential to reduce the number of counterfeit N95s in the next 1-2 years.
The proposal addresses consumer education and empowerment.
The solution is novel or creative, either technically, strategically, or artistically.
The method innovatively addresses the communication gap.
The project plan can realistically be completed during the Phase 2 period
A timeline with milestones is included
A budget is presented and justified
Any gaps in resources are identified and a plan for bridging the gap(s) is provided. Resources include manpower, expertise, equipment, facilities, etc.
Any barriers to implementation are identified and are low or readily overcome.
The proposal has a high level of technical feasibility.
The solution can be sustained, maintained, and updated (if applicable) over time.
The cost of implementation appears reasonable.
Minimal likelihood that the solution could make counterfeit respirators more prevalent if in the wrong hands.
Phase 2 Judging Criteria
Execution of proposed project plan
The proposed solution was successfully created according to the project plan.
Any changes to the original proposed project plan are explained and described (changes should maintain or improve the solution’s proposed performance).
Results and Usability
Users are likely to use the solution and/or to recommend it.
The solution is appropriate for the intended audience.
The solution works well.
The solution is robust, pleasantly presented, and easy to use.
The next steps towards broader implementation of the solution are clearly laid out.
Any barriers to implementation are identified and a path to overcome them is described.
The solution can be sustained, maintained, and updated (if applicable) over time.
The completed product is novel and/or has not been considered by NIOSH previously.
Submissions must respond to the questions listed below and may optionally include an upload of a supplementary Powerpoint or PDF slide deck that is no longer than 5 slides.
Please review the full legal agreement that you accepted upon registration: https://www.herox.com/NIOSHCounterfeitN95/legal-agreement-view. The below questions are to remind you of important eligibility requirements and are not inclusive of all requirements.
1. Does your submission originate from either the U.S. or a designated country, OR has it been substantially transformed in the US or designated country prior to submission pursuant to FAR 25.403(c)?
If you are from a non-designated country (this includes India), you must have a Team Captain from a designated country.
2. What country is your Team Captain based in?
3. Are you or anyone on your team a CDC employee, employee of another federal agency, a Government contractor or employed by one or receiving government funding for similar projects?
If yes, there may be certain restrictions on your participation and you should review the legal agreement.
4. Do you have all the rights, licenses, permissions and consents necessary to submit the Submission and to grant the United States Government a royalty-free license to use it, should you win (as described in the legal agreement)?
Provide a short introduction to yourself and/or your whole team. What are everyone’s roles and what is their relevant experience?
Tell us about your overall proposal:
What is your solution?
How does it work?
Which audience(s) does it target?
Why is your strategy particularly relevant to addressing counterfeit N95 respirators?
What background research informed your solution?
What is the potential for your solution to ultimately reduce the number of counterfeit and substandard N95 FFRs in the marketplace and why?
How does your solution encourage your target audience(s) to learn more or engage at all?
How will your approach increase consumer awareness, confidence, and empowerment and how would you measure such an increase?
What creative approach(es) have you taken with your solution?
Does it address or work around the typical obstacles and pitfalls that other solutions experience:
Reaching the target audience(s)
Staying updated with any counterfeiters' advancements
Ensuring that the most important information gets absorbed
Provide a breakdown of your project plan below. This should describe how you would create a pilot version of your solution within the Phase 2 time frame:
Please provide an estimated timeline for your activities.
Identify what resources and talent you would require (also specify if you have any of these already in place)
Give an estimated budget breakdown and, if applicable, describe any other sources of funding you have or intend to pursue
Please highlight the areas of your plan that present the greatest risk to finishing on time.
What is the overall technical feasibility for your solution?
Does the technology needed to implement your proposal exist and do you have the resources and expertise to leverage that technology?
What obstacles do you foresee if you were to try to implement this solution in the wider market? How should they be addressed?
Speaking honestly, are there any areas of expertise or design questions that you will need to address, if chosen for Phase 2? If you share these gaps, it helps the Challenge Sponsor to advise you on solving them.
Optional Pitch Deck
File upload, .pdf or .pptx
If you would like to upload a pitch deck or presentation that is no more than 5 slides long, please do so here as a PDF or Powerpoint file. (Note: some powerpoint presentation features cannot be preserved)
A team/individual bio page.
An introduction to your proposed solution and your chosen target audience.
A concise overview of how you would implement your pilot project within Phase 2.
An explanation of the feasibility of your proposal, potential obstacles, and any gaps you look to fill.
Provide a high-level description of your proposed solution. What is it? What will it do? How does it work?
Summary of Phase 2 progress
Provide a high-level overview of your Phase 2 activities.
Execution of Proposed Project Plan
Please describe how you implemented your project plan.
If you ran into stumbling blocks, how did you overcome them?
What changes did you make, if any, to your original approach?
Results and Usability
Please discuss the outcomes of your work.
How does it work?
Who is the intended audience, and how is the tool meant to be used by you or NIOSH?
How does it communicate and/or educate the audience about counterfeit N95 products?
How will it lead to an ultimate reduction in counterfeit products?
Now that you’ve created your solution, what are the next steps that need to occur so it can be deployed?
What additional resources will be needed to make the solution launch ready or to be maintained?
How will your solution stay relevant and up to date?
Please discuss how your solution demonstrates Innovation:
How is this different from other tools that could combat counterfeiting?
Why will this be compelling to a user?
Video Walkthrough of your Solution
You may also share a 2-5 minute video that walks the judges through your solution and demonstrates how it would function. This is optional.
(Optional) Additional Information
Is there anything else you would like to tell the judges about your submission?
The Prize is open to anyone age 18 or older participating as an individual or as a team. Individual competitors and teams may originate from any country, as long as United States federal sanctions do not prohibit participation (see: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/Programs.aspx). If you are a Federal employee your participation in this challenge is prohibited (see HeroX challenge specific agreement - https://www.herox.com/NIOSHCounterfeitN95).
Submissions must originate from either the U.S. or a designated country (see definition of designated country at https://www.acquisition.gov/far/part-25#FAR_25_003), OR have been substantially transformed in the U.S. or designated country prior to prototype delivery pursuant to FAR 25.403(c).
Submissions must be made in English. All challenge-related communication will be in English.
You are required to ensure that all releases or transfers of technical data to non-U.S. persons comply with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) 22 C.F.R. §§ 120.1 to 130.17.
Submissions from outside individuals and non-expert teams are encouraged.
Innovator grants to the Federal government an irrevocable, paid-up, royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide license to reproduce, publish, post, link to, share, and display publicly the submission on the web or elsewhere, and a non-exclusive, non-transferable, irrevocable, paid-up license to practice, or have practiced for or on its behalf, the solution throughout the world. Each Innovator will retain all other intellectual property rights in their submissions, as applicable. To participate in the Challenge, each Innovator must warrant that there are no legal obstacles to providing the above-referenced nonexclusive licenses of the Innovator’s rights to the Federal government.
To receive a prize for their submission, Innovators must agree to grant the Federal government a non-exclusive license right to the inventive concept or inventions and patents in all Intellectual Property demonstrated by the winning/award submissions. Full intellectual property rights also remain with the licensor. See the Challenge-Specific Agreement for complete details (https://www.herox.com/NIOSHCounterfeitN95)
You may be required to complete an additional form to document this license if you are selected as a winner.
By participating in the challenge, each competitor agrees to submit only their original idea and to adhere to the HeroX Intellectual Integrity Policy. Any indication of "copying" amongst competitors is grounds for disqualification.
All applications will go through a process of due diligence; any application found to be misrepresentative, plagiarized, or sharing an idea that is not their own will be automatically disqualified.
All ineligible applicants will be automatically removed from the competition with no recourse or reimbursement.
No purchase or payment of any kind is necessary to enter or win the competition.
Void wherever restricted or prohibited by law.
By participating in this Challenge, each Participant (whether an individual, group of individuals, or entity) agrees to indemnify the Federal government against third-party claims for damages arising from or related to Challenge activities.
Participants shall not use the NIOSH, CDC, or HHS names, logos, or official seals in their submissions and must not claim endorsement from those entities.
Participants agree that HHS may disqualify the submission if, in HHS’ judgment, the program is inconsistent with HHS’ public health mission, may be ineffective or harmful, or for any other reason deemed necessary.
Record Retention and FOIA: All materials provided to HHS as part of a submission become HHS records and cannot be returned. Any confidential commercial information contained in a submission should be designated in accordance with 45 C.F.R. § 5.41. Participants will be notified of Freedom of Information Act requests for their submissions in accordance with 45 C.F.R. § 5.42.
An N95 FFR certification phone app for the general public is developed, and coupled with a clinical and supply chain community website.
These four teams will now be invited to participate in Phase 2 where they will build out their initial proposals into a proof-of-concept and explore what would be required for their concept to scale upwards.
We would also like to recognize the following honorable mentions. While these teams will not be advancing to the next stage, we would like to commend them for their excellent submissions:
We are pleased to share with you the 6 finalists who will be advancing to the pitch round of Phase 1. Here they are just below:
Ethos- Authentication Standards for NIOSH Registry by Team Aegle - Provenio
Fake Mask Awareness by Robert Schlecht
N95 FFR Validation App and Website by Team Essayon Engineering
N95 Check by Team Crointel
Digital Title by Team Digital Title
Verisku by Leigh Brand's Team
We will be reaching out to these Finalists soon with the information they need to prepare for the next round. For now, an important reminder: The challenge pitch sessions will be held from 12pm to 4pm on Thursday February 16th. So Finalists, please make space in your calendars for this stretch, you will only need to attend for about 20-30 minutes to present your pitch and you will be sent a scheduling form to choose your specific session time, but we have not yet established the order of presentations.
To all of the other challenge participants, know that this was a difficult decision for our judging team, hence why it took so long! We would like to thank all of you for your contributions to this poignant and difficult problem. Please know that the team thoroughly reviewed every entry and that we will be synthesizing all of the wisdom gained from this challenge, even if your entry was not chosen as a finalist.
Keep an eye out for more information around the Phase 1 Winners Announcement!