In 2017 — long before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world — the Baltimore-based company ClearMask launched a line of transparent surgical masks to improve communication between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their medical providers.
“Now, with universal mask wearing during a pandemic, more and more people have started to realize the importance of seeing facial expressions, visual cues and lip-reading, and how much we all subconsciously rely on visual communication,” said Allysa Dittmar, the company’s co-founder and president.
The company started after Dittmar, who is deaf, had an adverse experience in a 2015 surgery when her sign language interpreter never showed due to a scheduling error, she recalled.
“Because there were no transparent masks on the market, I was unable to communicate effectively with my surgery team,” Dittmar said. “Traditional masks blocked everyone’s faces and impeded communication.”
Dittmar, who was dismayed after discovering the lack of transparent surgical masks on the market, teamed with Aaron Hsu to start the business. Hsu eventually would became the CEO.
The two met in class while studying at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. They later pitched their idea of developing a fully transparent mask in October 2016 during a Medical Entrepreneurship class. The class provided the pair with mentoring, which allowed them to develop a business plan. They were able to raise $125,000 through a number of grants and awards to launch the company.
This month, the Wall Street Journal released a report showing the Remington-based company, which now has a staff of 250 employees, sold 12 million transparent masks in a seven-month period in 2020.
The company has been able to avoid many of the pitfalls other companies have experienced — especially when it comes to shipment delays from oversees manufacturers — because it produced their clear plastic, anti-fogging masks locally.
ClearMask worked with Columbia-based TEDCO, the state-backed Maryland Technology Development Corp., which connected it with critical partners, including manufacturer Xometry, based in Gaithersburg, and Baltimore-based Shapiro, a logistics partner that helped with domestic and international shipping, ocean freights and customs, according to Hsu.
“In addition to our unique and hardworking team, our networks and mentors gained from the accelerators and programs that ClearMask participated in over the years [that] helped make the company a success,” Hsu said.
And while the company was launched to better serve the deaf and hard of hearing community, the company’s biggest customers — 80% — have been front-line employees such as health care and hospital workers and government employees, Dittmar said.
“It’s been neat to see a growing, widespread recognition of how regular traditional masks impede natural communication, and our growing and diverse customer base as a testament to how universal visual communication is,” Dittmar said.
In addition to selling millions of the masks, the company also has donated thousands of masks. They said they plan to donate 38,480 masks to nonprofits across the country by the end of 2020.
Humanim, a nonprofit that oversees 35 human services, youth services, workforce development and social enterprise programs throughout Maryland and Delaware, received more than 4,000 of the masks from ClearMask.
“We are really, really grateful,” said Diana Ellis, vice president of strategic partnerships and development at Humanim. “As a nonprofit, times are tough. To receive this donation is a blessing. It is helping us divert funds to other areas. It’s really going to help in all of our programs.”
Dittmar believes that her company has a bright future even beyond COVID-19.
“Having a clear mask available on my medical team’s faces would have helped me better communicate with everyone — even the most basic gestures such as a smile goes a long way,” Dittmar said. “Just imagine — being unable to hear anything and being unable to see even a smile for reassurance. It’s truly scary and dehumanizing. I believe this is also why the ClearMask has been successful with other patient groups, especially children, senior citizens, and behavioral health — where anxiety and confusion is high.”
This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor, Sundra Hominik at email@example.com.
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John-John Williams IV has worked for The Baltimore Sun since 2005. He joined the paper as an education reporter covering Howard County, then Baltimore City and state and national education stories. He joined the features staff as the fashion reporter in 2011. His role in features has expanded to covering home, food, travel and popular culture.