Auckland company Lanaco is about to launch its first protective mask, and chief executive Nick Davenport says all 500,000 in its first production run, which will be delivered in two weeks, are pre-sold.
Lanaco has fielded interest for some 100 million masks from various government agencies, and corporates around the world, Davenport says.
The company has short-term and long-term plans to fill the orders that are rolling in, the CEO says. The long-term plan is to produce 20 million masks per year. He's reluctant to give numbers for the months ahead, although Lanaco is collecting names for pre-orders via its website.
Although coronavirus protection is the immediate demand-driver, protective masks are a three-year project, and created with a range of markets in mind from combating air pollution to surgery. Production for the first run was initially ramped up because of the Australian bush fires.
Lanaco has been in business since 2010, using New Zealand wool as the signature product in its clean air filters. Wool is sourced from purpose-bred Astino sheep. The masks are based on the company's Helix Wool Filter.
This will be the first time the company has produced its own-branded, mass-market mask, although it already supplies its N95-level filters for masks sold by two partners: Healthy Breath (also an investor in Lanaco) through its Meo brand and the independent, Christchurch-based Cactus Outdoor.
Cactus has just launched the Cactus Face Mask, based on Lanaco's filter, for $45 in black or navy, and medium and large sizes. Director Ben Kepes says they are in stock - a rare thing for masks at this point in time, from the disposable to the high-end, even as multinationals like 3M increase production.
RNZ reported earlier today that GPs have run out of masks and other protective gear and say that makes them vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, while the Government holds on to 18 million masks.
The Ministry of Health has stockpiled nine million masks with filters as well as nine million general surgical masks as part of its pandemic planning.
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The World Health Organisation recommends protective masks that conform to the N95 standard. That is, they can block at least 95 per cent of very small (0.3 micron) test particles.
Davenport says Lanaco's Helix Wool Filter masks are being manufactured to the N95 standard, but that actual certification is still in train in what he describes as an expensive and time-consuming process.
Kepes says the Helix Filter used in the mask filters 99 per cent of particles down to 0.3 microns in size.
He says he looked around the world for the best filter technology, and found it at home with Lanaco's "breathable, natural fibre outer creating a product that protects against harmful particles, pollution, bacteria and viruses."
Beyond the coronavirus - which broke when Cactus' first production run was already on the way - Kepes sees firefighters and tradies among potential buyers.
Davenport says, "People like the ability to source a mask from New Zealand, and it's a technically superior product."
And that's not just marketing blather.
Nasa is evaluating Lanaco's Helix filter for possible use in life-support systems to protect astronauts in its Orion spacecraft, being designed to explore the moon, Mars and asteroids. The first launch is slated for 2023.
After a trip to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Lanaco's head of technology Shaun Tan told the Herald he was confident that the Helix filter could meet Nasa's requirements.
"In the case of the Orion life-support system, the Helix filter is being tested for particle loading capacity, breathability, flame resistance and the ability to function even if exposed to Orion's water-based fire extinguisher systems," Tan said.
The Davenport family, Healthy Breath and staff through an employee ownership programme are the largest shareholders in Lanaco. Nick Davenport earlier founded Nexus Foams, sold to Skellerup for $6.5m in April last year.
Smaller investors include Icehouse Ventures, the Crown-backed NZ Venture Investment Fund (8 per cent) and Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1.
Is a mask enough?
The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has cautioned that a mask alone will not protect you from coronavirus (Covid-19). The virus can also enter your body through your eyes, meaning goggles are also needed for full protection. Frequently washing your hands is also essential.
A protective mask needs to securely cover the mouth, chin and nose, the CDC says.
Taking off the mask correctly is equally important. The mask should be treated as if it's contaminated and pulled off by the straps around the ears, and never just lowered from the mouth.
CDC recommends an N95-rated mask, or one that can filter out 95 per cent of microscopic particles.