Way before the Covid-19 pandemic began, Riverview high schooler Kylie Smith, now 17, went on a business trip with her father, an entrepreneur, to China. It was 2013 and she was 12 years old at the time. While there, she noticed many Chinese citizens wearing face masks to ward off the effects of air pollution. She wore one, too, but couldn't help but notice how uncomfortable it was.
So she came up with an ingenious idea: what if there were face masks that alleviated humidity buildup, were slightly elevated off the face and had an interchangeable filter?
This is when Smith's entrepreneurial spirit and her company, Exa, were born. In early 2018, she developed a face mask prototype from a 3D printed model made with a small design firm in Scottsdale, Arizona, where her family lived at the time. The prototype was then sent to a larger firm in San Francisco, which works with brands like HP and GoPro. That's where the medical-grade silicone nose piece of Smith's mask was perfected over two years.
Two years later, the Covid-19 pandemic began. All of a sudden, face masks were in high demand, and Smith knew that disposable masks were polluting our streets, oceans and environments. So Smith, who is now a senior, had to make a decision between finishing school in-person or diving into Exa full force.
"What drove me to temporarily leave school and pursue Exa was the urgent need for masks in 2020 and this product being something that can help people in their daily lives," she says. "The sense of urgency motivated us to move faster." By August 2020, she had the Exa face mask in production.
In November 2020, Smith's family made a move to Sarasota to live closer to the beach. By August 2021, she'd already sold 1,000 units on her website and was shipping to customers in California, Florida and Arizona. Some masks were even shipped to Europe and Asia. She's already receiving positive feedback about the mask's comfort and durability.
The Exa face mask is a three-part system. "The first part of the mask is the cloth shield," says Smith. "This is like an ordinary mask that catches particles, but it's equipped with sewn-in magnets that attach it to the inner pieces."
The inner piece is called the airframe, which helps keep the mask slightly elevated off the wearer's face. It is made out of TR 90 nylon—the same material that Oakley sunglasses are made of—making it resistant to sunscreen, face oils and makeup. The third piece is the cushioned nose piece with nostril holes made of medical-grade, antibacterial silicone. The entire piece can be popped out and the disposable filter, which can be bought in bulk on Exa's website, can be removed and changed, which Smith recommends doing twice a week.
"The mask's design helps prevent glasses from fogging up and from people getting skin irritation or mask acne because of the material rubbing against their face all day," says Smith. "The way the air is channeled out through the filter, however, still keeps people safe from germs."
Since Exa was designed well before Covid-19, its use is meant for more than preventing Covid infection. The masks are useful for those with severe allergies and for those living in cities with high levels of smog and air pollution. Smith adds that since masks are becoming more normalized in Western culture, she believes the product will be useful for years to come.
"This mask, even with regular washes, can last up to two years," says Smith. "The average person is spending about $112 per year on disposable or fabric masks and has to throw them away rather quickly."
"Our mask's initial investment is $90, with filter packs at $120 per year, so this is a few more dollars for something that will last longer and is more sustainable for the environment," she continues. Exa masks come in small, medium and large sizes and will eventually come in a variety of colors.
As a teenage entrepreneur, Smith hopes to grow Exa and continue to invent things that benefit the general good. She will graduate from Riverview High School in 2022, plans to apply to Stanford University and attend college next fall.
To purchase an Exa mask, visit the company's website and order online.