Tata Center faculty and MIT alum create social enterprise to produce standards-tested PPEs in India

The team hopes to manufacture a billion masks with the help of women self-help groups.

Shivangi Misra | May 7, 2020

A team of MIT alum and collaborators, led by Tata Center Academic Director and Senior Lecturer at Sloan School of Management Chintan Vaishnav, have come together to not only manufacture better quality N95 masks for the Indian market, but they aim to use this opportunity to provide a sustained source of income for numerous women in urban and rural India who rely on daily wages for their livelihoods.

The team comprises Dr. Anoop Rao, Neonatologist and Instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Satyanarayana Kuchibhatla, materials scientist and Co-founder, Parisodhana Technologies in Hyderabad, India, along with Vaishnav. Anand Sivaraman and Arvind Saraf, two MIT alum and successful entrepreneurs in India, also contributed with expertise in healthcare and textile. With the non-profit ‘Billion Social Masks’ initiative, the team hopes to manufacture a billion masks. “Such a cumulative demand exists right now and will manifest itself as the world opens back up,” said Vaishnav.

India, like every other country currently dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, is in a race against time to acquire Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for its healthcare/frontline workers as well as the general public. Up until March 1, the country had been primarily reliant on imports to meet its PPE requirements. While many domestic companies, including Reliance Industries, Aditya Birla Fashion, Mahindra group, and Shahi Exports, have ramped up capacity, reports suggest there are around 20,000,000 N95 masks currently on backorder. With the spread of Covid-19 pandemic, the global demand for N95 masks has skyrocketed because of their filtration efficiency. The name N95 signifies that the mask blocks 95% of particulate matter larger than 0.3 microns like dust, mists, and fumes, and more than 99% of bacteria. The nonwoven filtration material is like a 3-dimensional tangle of fibers that create narrow channels and block the passage of viruses or dust. These features make them most suitable for frontline workers like doctors, nurses, other healthcare providers, police, and many essential workers. However, due to their short supply, N95 masks are reserved only for frontline workers most at risk of infection.

Kuchibhatla, who co-founded Parisodhana Technologies, a healthcare device innovation company based in Hyderabad, has been coordinating ground activities for Billion Social Masks in India. “Our frontline workers, as well as the general public, are currently using simple cloth-based masks that offer limited protection against coronavirus. Our goal is to give people higher quality masks that offer better protection,” he said.

Working closely with Dr. Rao from the Stanford School of Medicine, the team quickly recognized the challenge in designing and manufacturing PPEs given the unavailability of raw materials due to the over-burdened global supply chains. “We decided to use locally-sourced raw material, like cotton, for our mask designs along with a composite filtration media. Cotton offers better breathability and is ideal for the hot and humid Indian weather,” Kuchibhatla said. The filtration media will be manufactured and tested for quality at Parisodhana in accordance with N95 standard performance requirements. The masks have been tested by the South Indian Textile Research Association (SITRA) based in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu. “The tested quality of this mask – unlike many others in the market – is key to providing standardized safety and quality. This is turn, is at the core of creating inclusive innovations without compromising quality. We have also designed higher-quality masks at Parisodhana for our healthcare workers who are most at risk due to acute PPE shortages in hospitals,” said Dr. Rao. Parisodhana’s development work is supported by I-CO fund and mentored by IKP Knowledge Park, Hyderabad.

Vaishnav, who has been associated with the Tata Center for Technology and Design at MIT since its inception in 2012, is well-versed with the livelihoods of underserved communities, domestic manufacturing, and supply chain challenges. “At the heart of this initiative was our desire to empower financially vulnerable communities who are most at risk of losing livelihoods due to reduced economic activity across the country,” he said. With that intent, the Billion Social Masks team reached out to several grassroots organizations including Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) headquartered in Ahmedabad that promotes the rights of low-income independently employed women, SELCO Foundation, India, a social enterprise based in Bengaluru that helps improve living standards of poor households in rural India through solar energy-based interventions, and EKAM Foundation, that provides free quality healthcare to underprivileged children and new mothers. “With Parisodhana manufacturing the filtration media, we’re partnering with these organizations to build the cotton sleeves, ties, and knots. They already make masks; infused with our technology, they will see a substantial jump in their profit margins, while offering improved protection to users,” said Kuchibhatla. “A significant part of the profits that our initiative generates, will go to these workers as a means to ensure sustained employment benefits for them and their communities,” said Vaishnav. This unique setup will also enable the initiative to circumvent any labor shortages caused by the economic shutdown or the rural-urban migratory labor patterns within the country while ensuring the livelihoods of many in the safety of their homes. “I see the Billion Social Masks initiative as an excellent template for manufacturing other products to support the Indian healthcare sector,” said Dr. Rao.

The team will produce their first batch in Ahmedabad with the help of SEWA workers, which will be ready by the end of the week. These masks are washable and reusable for up to 10 uses, a clear washing protocol and post washing performance are expected to be validated by SITRA in the near future. With N95 masks currently selling for over 200 INR each, the Billion Social Masks initiative plans to price them close to 50INR each. “Creating such an initiative has been possible because of the past six years of work at the MIT Tata Center, generously supported by the Tata Trusts, which enabled deep and trusted connections with such exemplary grassroots organizations,” said Vaishnav.

Pre-orders for N95 masks can be made at www.billionsocialmasks.org.


The Tata Center at MIT is supported by the Tata Trusts, one of India’s oldest philanthropic organizations.