Alumni idea moves mitten plant to facemasks

Kevin Vuong, BMOS’11, above, and Larry Lau, BA’09, MBA’18, have teamed up to convert Canadians’ worries about contracting the COVID-19 virus into a business producing and selling facemasks to essential, non-health-care workers.

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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A pair of Western alumni have converted Canadians’ worries about contracting the COVID-19 virus into a business producing and selling facemasks to essential, non-health-care workers. The launch of TakeCare Supply has also meant retooling a factory, which otherwise would have closed down, and keeping many of its employees.

In only its first few days of production, TakeCare Supply has received orders for more than 2,000 of its reusable masks, said Kevin Vuong, BMOS’11.

The masks are not designed or intended to replace N95 or medical-grade personal protective equipment – “and no claims are being made that they are,” the website emphasizes.

Instead, the facemasks free up scarce medical-grade personal protective equipment for health workers who need them, while offering some support to those with non-medical access to the public.

These reusable masks are made of cloth, with a sleeve into which the wearer can add extra fabric – such as a dried, unused facial wipe – as an extra filter.

“Our research found that cloth masks enhanced with additional filtration can improve respiratory protection with an effectiveness of up to 74 per cent against 1-micron particles and up to 70 per cent against 0.02-micron particles,” the company’s website says.

Buyers include people who work with the public in essential services and have higher potential exposure to COVID-19: postal workers, grocery clerks, delivery-people and bank staff, for example.

They also include immunocompromised people who want to minimize exposure if they need to venture out of their homes. “And other customers are employed people like me who wanted some protection for us and our loved ones,” Vuong said.

All the facemasks – which must be washed after every use ­– cover the nose and mouth and range in price from $6-$9.50.

Vuong said the company’s start emerged from work he had already been doing with Anna-Maria Mountfort, a fashion designer whose bespoke mittens are made at a Toronto factory.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold and as winter waned, “we realized we had a special skillset, with a factory on hand that wasn’t doing anything that was really needed right now,” Vuong said.

They then began working with serial entrepreneur Larry Lau, BA’09, MBA’18,  to make their idea become a business reality.

Over the course of less than a week, they tested the breathability, comfort and protection levels of different types of fabric; consulted with five medical doctors and a dentist about what was needed and what would be most effective; created a prototype; and retooled the factory into production to make facemasks.

“In the last three days, we’ve had factory workers put to work again and 2,000 work orders.”

About seven factory employees who otherwise would have lost their jobs are now contributing to the better health of Canadians, he said.