Amid a pandemic, a serial Triangle entrepreneur has built a new venture around breathable, protective workplace masks.
Aries CEO Chris Evans, who is known for starting tech companies like Accipiter in the late ’90s—which was his third successful software startup—says he has a passion for bringing new innovations into the market. He identified a situation at NC State, where textile researchers had developed a proprietary fabric that had tremendous potential in our current times, Evans said.
The material that NC State scientists had created was extremely breathable, like a layer of cotton, but still filters particles at a medical-grade level—making it the perfect material for a mask to protect from the coronavirus.
“You have something that gives you the protection that you need,” Evans said, “but also delivers the comfort that you want.”
In September 2020, Evans said Aries really came together and took in about $1.3M from angel investors. Evans himself led the round with a substantial personal investment.
The Aries mask, produced in the United States, distinguishes itself from other masks on the market because it ranks high both in breathability and protection provided by filtration. Generally, that’s been an either/or proposition. Cotton masks are breathable and comfortable, for instance, but don’t do a great job at filtering out tiny particles, while medical-grade masks like N-95s are excellent at filtering out potential pathogens but aren’t easy to breathe through.
The Aries mask is also durable and can be folded in your pocket without affecting its ability to filter, making it a practical all-day mask.
The mask doesn’t muffle your voice either, which could be a saving grace for people who are hard of hearing. Evans said this year has been his wife’s personal hell because she’s hearing-impaired and often relies partly on lip reading. It is a big difference to have a mask that doesn’t muffle your voice.
Initially, Aries was focused on developing products for hospitals, but the regulatory path for new developments in healthcare is long. So now Aries has targeted a new audience: businesses and consumers. Aries partnered with ZShield to offer their masks to schools and regular consumers at $15 for a pack of five. All Aries masks last for a week of full-time wear.
Employers looking to keep their employees safe but comfortable can look to Aries. Aries masks are also environmentally more sustainable because they do not need to be thrown away every day.
Evans said that after you invent a technology, it’s then harder to create a new habit, even if you have a better way of doing something.
But the coronavirus pandemic has created new habits in nearly all of us. Many people now rely on teleconferencing or ‘Zooming,’ and as a whole, we have become a mask-wearing culture.
“A year ago, I could never imagine walking into a grocery store wearing something on my face,” Evans said. “I would feel self-conscious. At this point, that will never be true again in my lifetime.”
Even after the fear of coronavirus spread has died down, Evans believes many people will continue wearing masks, especially during cold and flu season or during big events like sports games or concerts.
If this continues as a new normal, Aries wants to make mask-wearing a comfortable experience while increasing the average protection someone gets. Evans said he is routinely told that users find themselves still wearing their mask when they get into their car because it’s so comfortable.
Good, local manufacturing jobs
Aries’ impact is also based in creating jobs for Americans and North Carolinians, having leased a manufacturing plant in Sanford and partnering with other American manufacturers with excess capacity.
“We have the opportunity to create 21st century manufacturing jobs here in North Carolina, where you’re making a product that’s important and you can get paid well doing it,” Evans said. “We’re helping provide security to the U.S. as a result.”
Evans has been a part of many startups, but he said starting one in the middle of a pandemic is odd. The Aries core team has still never been in the same room at the same time.
Evans looks forward to being in the same building with others and getting the energy that comes when everyone feeds off each other.
Looking ahead, there continue to be opportunities to create new products with NC State’s non-woven fabric innovations surrounding personal protection, Evans said. The startup’s future goes beyond retail opportunities. Aries is already partnering with charities and is making a million masks in the next four weeks.
Raleigh’s Trinity Academy is one school that has used Aries masks during athletic competitions. The Trinity cross country team has used Aries masks, and Evans said the coach praised the great experience the athletes had. The team won impressively over its rival.
“It was great to know even in a tough environment where somebody is cross country running, for somebody to say good things about the mask that they’re made to wear, I felt like it was just a terrific test,” Evans said.