Facial masks were an integral part distribution restriction Kovid-19. But for many people who are deaf or hard of hearing, the coverings have left them isolated from society. When Dean Ezekiel’s wife Amy, who is partially deaf, attended a pregnancy examination during the first closure, she was confused to find that she could not determine what the doctor was saying. “Since he was in a mask, she couldn’t read his lips. She felt helpless without the use of basic communication, ”says Ezekiel.
It was this experience that inspired the entrepreneur to start Design Abled and develop Helloface, a transparent mask for recycling, compatible with face recognition technology. The startup was recently recognized for sustainability, victory in the microbusiness category at the Heroes of Net Zero contest on Cop26.
Developed in the UK, Ezekiel’s team worked closely with the Jewish Deaf Association to lead focus groups and replicate design based on user feedback. “Stories about what people are going through are very painful,” says Ezekiel, emphasizing that in health care facilities, some of the strongest, most confident, and most successful people in our community may automatically become the most vulnerable.
“There are people on hospital beds who can’t tell nurses what they need to go to the bathroom. The school has deaf children who cannot understand their teachers. And others, like Amy, who attend medical receptions in which they cannot participate, ”says Ezekiel.
According to state statistics, there are 11 million deaf or hard of hearing people in the UK. Only 87,000 of them know British Sign Language. Instead, many will rely on lip reading and other facial cues to communicate. A study by the charity SignHealth found that 74% of deaf people find it harder to access health care during a pandemic, and 62% say face masks have been one of the biggest problems involved. One in three says Covid-19 has had a serious negative impact on their mental health.
When the pandemic began, Ezekiel ran the travel company Upgrade, which he founded as part of the business incubator program at the University of Hertfordshire. When the flights were canceled, the university encouraged him to think about other business ideas and offer them to the group. “I had a few ideas, but this one was closest to my heart,” he says.
In addition to providing office space, marketing and legal advice, and assistance in writing tenders, the Business Hub Business Incubator and University Enterprise Zone programs also gave him access to university experts in nanotechnology, chemistry and materials, and special certification testing for compliance. laboratories.
Janina Aubrey is Head of Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of Hertfordshire. Her team simultaneously supports 350 to 400 businesses across a variety of programs, from a variety of sectors such as manufacturing, the creative industries, hospitality and healthcare.
During the pandemic, her team, along with the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership and the Hertfordshire Growth Center, launched a volunteer business support scheme, recruiting more than 75 volunteer teachers from the local business community as well as the university’s own business school to advise SMEs. “It was an incredibly positive experience,” Aubrey says. “Business was desperate for support – they called the local growth center and our own Enterprise Hub and there just weren’t enough hours a day to answer all their inquiries ”. The scheme ultimately supported more than 325 local businesses during this difficult period.
After more than a year of development, Helloface has released two types of certified masks that will soon be ready for distribution – a transparent medical mask and a P3 half-mask respirator. So far, Ezekiel says, there has been interest from NHS trusts, care homes and social services, as well as teachers, childcare providers and those working in noisy environments such as factories or construction sites. “We focus primarily on medical facilities. But in the end, we want to make sure that anyone who wants can get them, ”he said.
Being environmentally friendly was also a priority. A multidisciplinary team of researchers estimates that if everyone in the UK used a disposable mask every day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated plastic waste. “The materials we use are 100% recyclable, and we work with local recycling centers, so the material is shredded and returned as pellets for reuse in production,” says Ezekiel.
Encouraging entrepreneurs to think about sustainability is also a major focus for the University of Hertfordshire’s Enterprise Hub team. “We don’t just want to help businesses grow, we want to help them grow sustainably – and by that we mean sustainability in the broadest sense, including environmental and social factors,” says Aubrey. Sustainability measures are being discussed in the 12-month incubator program, and the university is launching a new 15-week Sustainability Accelerator Programfunded by the UK Government’s Community Renewal Foundation, and focused entirely on developing sustainable products, services or technologies.
Aubrey noticed a shift in how entrepreneurs prioritize sustainability, especially after Cop26. “No one really questions the need to talk about sustainability today. But businesses still need more training and support. There is a lot of confusion around some terminologies, and sometimes this may seem overwhelming. Sustainability should be a part of every entrepreneurial conversation from the very beginning, when entrepreneurs think about their concept, their value, their goal.
It was an easy task for the Helloface team. “We could have made things a lot easier, much faster, but we would have created a product that would end up in a landfill,” Ezekiel says. “We want to solve the current problem without creating a problem in the future.”
Learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Herts, and how the university helps businesses innovate, diversify and grow.