Who Is That Mask Man?
A face covering by Max Bock-Aronson ’13 is one of 2020’s best inventions.
It was only a matter of time before the world caught on to what Max Bock-Aronson ’13 has known for years: comfortable, high-quality masks can significantly improve respiratory health around the world.
Bock-Aronson is the inventor of the B2 mask, a reusable face covering that filters 99 percent of contaminants down to 0.1 micron, including air pollution, wildfire smoke, and viruses like COVID-19. Time magazine featured the B2 mask on its list of the Best Inventions of 2020.
While a mechanical engineering student at UW–Madison, Bock-Aronson studied abroad in Singapore and struggled to cope with the high level of air pollution. “I would get back from a run and my throat would hurt,” he says, noting that surgical masks are not designed to filtrate such small particles.
Back in Madison, Bock-Aronson entered an early prototype for a new kind of face mask — then dubbed the “Trunk Respirator”— in a UW– Madison student innovation competition. He won second place. “Getting recognized in that competition and winning a little bit of prize money is part of the reason why this particular thing stuck with me more than the other things I was thinking about at the time,” Bock-Aronson says.
After graduation, he worked for engineering firms in Madison and his native Minneapolis and learned the ropes of the medical-device industry. In 2018, he traveled to China and asked people to try his mask. The feedback encouraged him to push forward with the B2, and he incorporated the company Breathe99 and built a small team.
“I’m a curious person, and I like going out and exploring other spaces that challenge me to think about who I am in the context of the broader world,” Bock-Aronson says.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in spring 2020, Breathe99 launched a crowdfunding campaign to get more B2 masks into production. “The rest is history,” Bock-Aronson says, referring to Time’s coverage and his now-booming sales. As a public-benefit corporation, Breathe99 works with local organizations to donate masks to immunocompromised and elderly people, and Bock-Aronson says that as the company grows, he is committed to making his masks more affordable and accessible to all.
“I always knew that whatever work I was going to do, there [would be] a global context,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in how technology, art, or whatever we create moves people, and how it can change people’s perspectives and change our lives.”
Published in the Spring 2021 issue