From an immediate shift to homeworking for office staff, through hospitality businesses having to gear themselves towards home delivery and outdoor service, to workers on production lines and in warehouses having to get used to wearing masks and physical distancing. When the first lockdown to slow and control the spread of COVID-19 came into effect a year ago virtually everybody and every company had to change what they do and the ways that they work.
For some organisations and companies this meant re-gearing to directly mitigate and tackle COVID-19. One firm which did so is Footfalls & Heartbeats a smart textile start-up – spun out from MICRA partner the University of Nottingham – specialising in textile-based sensors. According to Footfalls & Heartbeat’s Adam Childs, the firm’s founder Simon McMaster and the staff were “shocked” by the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) available for key workers in the NHS, care sector, and undertaking other crucial jobs like couriering, working in supermarkets and bus driving. According to Childs “with this in mind” Footfalls & Heartbeats initiated Masks for the Masses to supply the general public and key workers with washable, reusable, facemasks.
The company’s technology – in Childs’ words – comprises an innovative patented technique, where “The Textile is the Sensor”. This avoids the need for embedded electronics, wires and solid-state sensors, allowing for advanced monitoring of metrics like pressure, heart rate and motion in products such as garments, mattresses and seats. Through incorporating sensors directly into the material, the technology maintains the look and feel of a textile giving it “…the potential to revolutionise the fields of sport and fitness, automotives and healthcare”.
This background meant Footfalls & Heartbeats “had the infrastructure and technical capabilities needed to start manufacturing washable protective textile masks”. Which made the “move towards face masks was straightforward” although they “needed to develop a design programme and decide yarn combinations”. It was also necessary to add “an anti-microbial layer on the inside of the mask for added hygienic protection… which required further research and development”. The primary challenge which the firm encountered establishing Masks for the Masses was “setting ourselves up to sell directly to customers for the first time”. Footfalls & Heartbeats had to “set up an online store, create a purchasing and returns policies and decide on cost effective, environmentally friendly packaging in a short space of time”.
The effort to get these new systems in place proved worth it. Over the course of six months nearly 5000 masks were produced. The majority of which – according to Childs “were sold to members of the public online, though we also donated a large number of masks to key workers and charities in the Nottingham area”. Feedback and testimonials from individuals who bought the masks and key workers who received them as donations was incredibly positive. A recurrent theme was that many purchasers were pleased they had a local option for buying reusable masks, which was sustainably sourced. The initiative also received wider accolades, including a facemask being accessioned by the Nottingham based Framework Knitters Museum as a permanent exhibit.
Looking back at the challenges and disruptions of the past year Childs says that Masks for the Masses gave Footfalls & Heartbeats “a new sense of purpose” during the COVID crises darkest moments. This was because “at a time when normal business ventures were slowing down… It was very fulfilling to be able to make a difference in Nottingham and to help those who were doing so much to help others”. Switching to producing masks during the crisis also enabled the firm to forge “new links” with the community through interacting with individuals and organisations they usually would not come into contact with.
In addition to these benefits Childs reflects:
“Masks for the Masses was a great learning experience for us on launching a product in a very short space of time. We had to shift our manufacturing processes and build a new product from scratch quickly, something that we had rarely done before. The shift in manufacturing inspired one of our engineers to begin exploring how our technology could be incorporated into a textile – based mask. Leading to the development of a smart mask, capable of measuring respiration for use in a healthcare setting, specifically helping those with long Covid and similar illnesses.”
Looking ahead the company has numerous exciting developments in train as they continue to expand and develop a wider user base for their technology. They recently moved to a new, larger, office providing ample space to continue growing and expand their team. The new facility includes a spacious knitting lab that can house additional equipment and machinery enabling the company to create an advanced laboratory pioneering smart textile manufacturing in the UK. These developments as we hopefully emerge from a year or more of pandemic disruption will enable Footfalls & Heartbeats to achieve their (admittedly) “lofty ambition of ‘changing the world” through enabling the use of their technology in areas like healthcare, health and safety, logistics, fitness and physiotherapy – helping those in need and improving lives.