Coleman Rollins: Creating a Startup to Help the World Breathe Easier
Coleman Rollins tells how his startup company, Breathe99, went from Kickstarter failure to the cover of Time magazine.
Coleman Rollins: Co-founder of Breathe99
- Coleman’s co-founder got the idea for the mask after studying abroad in Singapore, where the air is very polluted and few people were wearing masks.
- A pre-COVID Kickstarter campaign failed not because people didn’t like the product, but because they didn’t see why they would need it.
- The pandemic changed everything and led to a successful Kickstarter campaign and high demand for the B2 mask.
- Breathe99 masks are reusable with filters that are more effective than N95 masks and can be easily replaced as needed.
- Breathe 99: Breathe with confidence
- Study on the Effect of Proper Mask Wearing
- Time: Best Inventions of 2020
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, when we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic. My guest today is Coleman Rollins, a full Stack developer, Physicist and a member of the team at Breathe99, the makers of the sustainable, reusable B2 Mask. Coleman is also an alum of TEN7, and I’m delighted to be speaking with him again today. We’re going to dive deep into Breathe99’s origin, what the B2 Mask is, and why they are doing what they are doing over there.
Hey, and welcome to the podcast Coleman. It’s nice to have you back.
COLEMAN ROLLINS: Yeah, thanks so much for having me again.
IVAN: I’m looking forward to talking about Breathe99.
COLEMAN: Same here. Same here.
IVAN: What is Breathe99?
COLEMAN: Breathe99 is a company that manufactures high quality, reusable respirators. One day we hope to be a company that has many products related to health and breathing health, but right now our main product is the B2 Mask, and we are excited to be helping people right now.
IVAN: Yeah, it’s kind of timely to have a mask as a product for Breathe 99. Isn’t it?
COLEMAN: It is. And it’s also kind of crazy how we started this journey over four years ago, and for this to be happening in the world right now, it’s kind of wild.
IVAN: That is wild. So you said you started this four years ago. Can you talk about the founding of the company? Who founded it? How you were involved.
COLEMAN: Yeah, sure. My co-founder is my dear friend Max Bock-Aronson. And a long time ago in college, I want to say 2013 or 2014, he studied abroad in Singapore where the air pollution is very bad, and people were wearing masks in Singapore, but there wasn’t an option available to Max that was a) effective at filtering out the pollution in the air; b) something that would not create a lot of waste like disposable doctors’ masks; and c) something that looked nice that had a good design to it.
So, when he came back from Singapore, he immediately got to work on a mask that was completely different and early design compared to what it is today. But he ended up winning a design competition at the University of Wisconsin Madison for this mask that he created. That was kind of the inception of what Breathe99 is today.
IVAN: So, where were you at this point and how was his creation of this mask involved in what you were busy with at the time?
COLEMAN: I was finishing up at the University of Minnesota. I was starting to work at TEN7, and I was always close to Max no matter where we were in the world, and he reached out to me to talk about this project and can I help him build a website eventually when he wants to start trying to make it a reality. So, myself and another University of Wisconsin software engineer just popped in to help him build some cool web stuff for the mask. We had a 3D cad interactive image of it on the website, which was kind of cool.
IVAN: I remember that actually. [laughing]
COLEMAN: Oh yeah? Did I show you that?
IVAN: Yeah. It was all gray, like a silver background and gray and you could click on it and turn it around, I think. It was a very simple website back then I think.
COLEMAN: It was, yeah. That’s cool that you remember that. It was simple because we had no plan or methodology for what we were doing, but we wanted to put this thing on the internet.
IVAN: Somehow, yeah.
IVAN: The product must have evolved somehow. I know there’s a Kickstarter campaign in there somewhere. How did it go from an idea and a prototype and a one-page website to a Kickstarter campaign?
COLEMAN: For a long time, we weren’t necessarily doing anything with the project company-wise. Max spent a couple years just revising the product. He was working full-time at other jobs too, so it was really a side thing for him for a couple years. And I was just kind of around to help with whatever else he needed. It actually wasn’t until 2018 that we actually incorporated as a company, and at that point I was doing all the web stuff, but I was also setting up bank accounts for us, and helping sign up for services that we needed, and calling so and so to get so and so papers correct for the company. I was really just kind of a support for Max so that he could focus on the product. We had this crazy idea that if we just unleashed this product into the world, everyone would just love it right away, [laughing] and that was just not the case.
IVAN: Well, I mean, I think all founders and entrepreneurs are like that, right?
COLEMAN: [laughing] Yeah.
IVAN: We wouldn’t have companies if it wasn’t the case.
COLEMAN: Right. We had a first Kickstarter with the B1 in summer of 2019, and it was a complete failure.
IVAN: Oh, no?
COLEMAN: Yeah, it was bad. I came up to Minneapolis, and we had this big party at BlackStack Brewery, and all of our friends came out and that was really exciting, but the next day no one cared about it. And, back then, we had just come back from China as a team doing some research there, taking some really cool imagery for our brand, and we were really pushing the idea that people need this for air pollution and people need this in California for the forest fires.
IVAN: For the wildfires yeah.
COLEMAN: So that was our target audience at the time. [laughing] Ironically, I had a few people around me and family members be like, You know Coleman, this is a cool thing, but why do I need this? or like I want to support you, but I just don’t need it.
IVAN: So, how wonderful that there would be this pandemic, I guess, for your company [laughing] right? I mean, this is a perfect example of supply and demand. You had supply, you have a great idea, and really close to zero demand. And then all of a sudden there’s this international pandemic that completely flips everything for you.
COLEMAN: Yeah. It’s bittersweet, you know. No one wants this pandemic to be a thing, but we had a product all ready for it.
IVAN: When did the B2 come up, and the Kickstarter that obviously did not fail? Because I imagine there’s another Kickstarter that you ran for B2, or do I get that wrong?
COLEMAN: No, that’s correct. Things started to pop up with the pandemic end of 2019, and we were very close to just hanging it up with Breathe99. We were thinking about other ways to pivot the business and other ideas. And at some point, we were just all out of energy trying, and we were just kind of like, Well, you know, we tried this thing, and it was cool, but we could be done. So, end of 2019 Max was like, Well, I’m going to give this design one more shot, and he really created an incredible design for the mask, for the B2, far superior to the B1, and we launched our second Kickstarter, I want to say February or March of 2020.
IVAN: Oh, okay.
IVAN: Okay. So right when the pandemic is starting to get some sort of news traction in the United States. Right when there is obviously going to be a need for masks. And how did Kickstarter go?
COLEMAN: It went very well. We raised $500,000.
IVAN: Wow, that’s amazing, $500,000. Let’s talk about the Kickstarter whole process. You go from being a complete failure in your first one to raising half a million dollars in your second one. How do you do that? You’re not a manufacturing company. You’re not even a software company. What happened?
COLEMAN: There’s a lot there, and I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about Kickstarter as someone who’s been on the other side of being on the creator side. Basically, we had enough money from early investors to at least put down payments on the tooling for the manufacturing. So, we were ready to go. We had all the pipelines manufacturing lines set up, we just needed the money to pay them for the materials and to start working. So, essentially that’s why we did the Kickstarter. So, we do Kickstarter, it’s going bananas, and it is truly amazing to me how bad a Kickstarter platform is, considering how long they’ve been around and how much money they make on a daily basis. They have absolutely zero support for their creators; it’s terrible.
IVAN: What’s the biggest thing that is missing for you as a creator?
COLEMAN: I would say two things. One is the tools that they make available to you to communicate with your backers are extremely basic and cumbersome. And they give you absolutely no way to moderate your project page, because we had over 5,000 people who are extremely antsy for this mask, and some of them getting very angry at us to the point of being really toxic on our page. And we were helpless. Kickstarter was very unhelpful. The second thing, which is the big thing is that, when you’re done with a Kickstarter campaign, they essentially give you the money and a CSV file with your backers, and they’re like, “Good Luck”.
IVAN: That’s it?
COLEMAN: That’s it. So you get the CSV file and they’re like, Thanks. Good Luck. So if you want any sort of tracking with communicating with your backers, if you want any sort of tracking and automation with fulfillment you are essentially forced to use one a few third- party services that exist primarily to pick up the slack where Kickstarter lacks. So, we went with a service called BackerKit, which the benefit of BackerKit is that they allow you to sell more stuff after your campaign through this survey system. But the downside is that they require each backer to fill out a survey after they have done the Kickstarter. And when you’re herding cats with your Kickstarter backers this extra step is very difficult, and we were dealing with a lot of first-time Kickstarter users because people are searching all over the internet for a mask.And it was extremely frustrating on both sides of backer and creator, because people didn’t understand why they had to go through all these hoops to get their thing. And it’s like, Well, this is how Kickstarter works, we’re sorry, there’s nothing we can do. And a lot of people just didn’t understand that.
IVAN: How long did that go on for?
COLEMAN: That went on probably until like middle of summer because for one, they don’t give you the money until two weeks after the Kickstarter’s over, and then we had to set up this ridiculous Rube Goldberg data pipeline of Kickstarter to BackerKit to our shipping software and it was extremely fragile and extremely prone to error. And then you gotta remind people to fill out the survey. It was just a nightmare and we were so, so relieved when we were finally done with that.
IVAN: And, of course, that doesn’t do a whole lot of good for your marketing and for your appearance as a company right? Because there’s all these first time Kickstarter users I presume that think it’s your fault, not the platform's fault. They haven’t got their mask yet, and good luck if they’re going to trust you to buy the filter packs when they actually need to replace them.
COLEMAN: Exactly. On top of that we made a couple communication blunders throughout the campaign. We had accidentally published on our original Kickstarter like marketing material that we would give 20 extra filters when we really were planning on only giving ten. And someone pointed this out and there was a humongous uproar amongst the commenters, and it was really tough. It was a huge learning experience dealing with 5,000 people breathing down your neck at every moment. It was intense.
IVAN: But you’re all over that, now right?
IVAN: It’s after the summer, Kickstarter’s done. Where are you distributed right now? How can I get myself a B2 Mask is I want one? And then we’ll talk about the mask itself.
COLEMAN: Sure, yeah. We are distributed from Minneapolis; Minnesota and you can get a mask shipped in probably the same day or next day at Breathe99.com.
IVAN: It’s that easy?
COLEMAN: It’s that easy.
IVAN: And what does your supply chain look like? You said shipping next day, so you have inventory on hand.
COLEMAN: We have inventory on hand, we have a ton of filters and our manufacturer is also our fulfillment center which has also had its own set of issues with shipping and stuff. But right now everything’s moving really smoothly, so we’re happy about that.
IVAN: Alright, let’s talk about the mask itself, the B2 Mask. Superior breathing protection for daily life. That’s what it says on the box. So, I’m going to open this, first-time user. Thank you for sending me a mask and a filter pack.
COLEMAN: You’re welcome.
IVAN: As I’m opening this, tell me why this mask is special? How is it different?
COLEMAN: It really comes down to the seal on your face and the filters. The filters that we use are four layers of meltblown polypropylene that is electrostatically charged, and we have had a number of independent entities run tests on it. We've got a nice white paper that people can read on our website about our testing methodology.
One of our awesome teammates named Alison is an expert in filter technology and she’s done a ton of work to make sure they are super effective and really protect you to the best that they can. So, what’s great about the B2 is that the filters are super cheap, and you can replace them at-will. If you’re just venturing out and getting groceries and stuff, a pair of filters will last you a month at least.
IVAN: So, let’s talk about that. And, for those of you that are listening go to Breathe99.com to see a picture of this. It’s a rubber mask that has a hinge that folds really nicely, so you could presumably put it in your purse or in your pocket. And then there is this strap and cover that attaches to the mask that you can put on your face, and on your head, and then there are these disks with kind of circular fingers, you can use your two fingers to kind of slot the filter into the mask and then turn these plastic lids, they’re almost lids…
COLEMAN: We call them caps.
IVAN: Caps. There you go. They’re called caps. So, you get the mask, you get the strap, you get the caps, and then you get a box of 10 filters. So, five pairs, and each one of these disks go into either side of the mask, and on the box, there is a recommended usage of the filter based on, I guess, how much you’re using the mask. So, the filters themselves are not washable or anything like that, those you recycle.
IVAN: But the mask itself is what you keep around for a long time. When would you be doing a filter change? How often do I change these filters?
COLEMAN: It depends on the usage and your environment. If you’re someone who is working from home and is just going to the grocery store and running errands right now, once a month is perfectly fine. If you’re someone who is working at the grocery store, you’re going to want to change them more around once a week. Times when you’re exposing yourself more than usual, like going on an airplane or riding the bus, those will prompt more frequent filter changes.
IVAN: And these filters are made in the U.S.
COLEMAN: Everything made in Minnesota actually.
IVAN: Everything is made in Minnesota. That’s wonderful to hear. That’s really nice. I love this thing. It’s great. I would love to talk about the science of the filters for a second, if you don’t mind?
IVAN: Meltblown and electrically charged polypropylene.
IVAN: What does that mean?
COLEMAN: I am not the one to explain that in detail, but basically it's material similar to what you would've find in an N95, however based on our tests we’ve achieved more like between 99.6 and 97.9% efficiency when it comes to particles down to the size of .1 microns, I believe.
IVAN: Wow, and the fact that it’s electrostatically charged makes a difference as well I would assume?
COLEMAN: Yes. So that means when particles are coming through the filter they are essentially attracted to the polypropylene fibers.
IVAN: Interesting. And which side goes up? [laughing] There are these dots on the filters.
COLEMAN: Yes. Dots out.
IVAN: Dots out, okay. The reason I ask that is, when we talk about effectiveness and when you try to model, how efficient is it for a population to be wearing 95% or 99% effective masks. Like if half of the population wears it or if 75% of the population wears it, you have to also think about inhalation versus exhalation. So, the numbers that you gave between, I think you said 97% and 99.5% or something like that, effective, is that inhalation or exhalation or both of them? I don’t understand quite how that works.
COLEMAN: The tests that we’ve undergone, I believe focus primarily on inhalation, however due to the nature of the filter and its four layers, it’s certainly protecting exhalation much better than your standard mask.
IVAN: Got it. What does the B2 Mask cost and what do the filters cost?
COLEMAN: The B2 Mask is $59.99 and that’s the starter kit that you just explained with the filter caps, the fabric overlay and a pack of filters. And then an extra pack of filters is $8.99, and we actually just released a light version of the B2 filter, and those are $7.99 and those are only three layers as opposed to four.
IVAN: Light version. Okay. Does that change the efficacy very much?
COLEMAN: It hardly changes the efficacy, but it changes the breathability significantly.
IVAN: I see. And making it obviously a little easier to breathe I would assume?
COLEMAN: Correct, yeah. With the four layers, if you’re going on a bike ride or doing a workout, you’re going to notice the resistance in breathing.
IVAN: Interesting. Now, if I’m not mistaken this product has earned you a Time 100 Best Inventions of 2020.
IVAN: [laughing] Well, congratulations. That’s amazing. How did that happen?
COLEMAN: Thank you. Yeah, huge news just a couple weeks ago. Our marketing and communications team member Emma, who is based in Greece, applied us to this Time 100 months and months ago. And we forgot about it, and they reached out to us maybe two months ago and asked for a mask, and asked to talk to Max a little bit. And then two weeks ago we found out the day before the article came out online that we had made it in, and then they sent us a picture of the cover and the B2 is on the cover which is so cool.
IVAN: That is really, really amazing and wonderful. What a great story. Young Minnesota guy. Where is Max from?
COLEMAN: Minneapolis, same.
IVAN: Oh, so two young Minnesotans start a company, do a Kickstarter that doesn’t go so well, then do a Kickstarter that goes incredibly well and start a company with a Made in Minnesota product that is helping the world with the pandemic. You must feel pretty good about yourself?
COLEMAN: Well, it feels great and honestly, we couldn’t have done it without our other team members who we’ve brought on.
IVAN: Tell me about the team Coleman. Who’s contributing to Breathe99 these days?
COLEMAN: Sure. It’s Max and I and we’ve got Emma, our marketing member, Alison who is our filter technology member and who has also taken on a lot of the big jobs when it comes to business operations, Bhuvi, both Alison and Bhuvi are in Canada, and Bhuvi is our customer support and she’s done an incredible job of helping reduce the fires in our Kickstarter comments and talk to people about masks and how to use them better. We’ve got Julia, another Minneapolis native who has a degree in apparel design and she designed the fabric overlay, V2 of fabric overlay coming out soon by the way. And I think that’s about it. We had another Minneapolis guy named Derek doing sales for us for a little while and that’s about it.
IVAN: That’s wonderful. It’s a great uplifting story. I’m glad that it’s going so well. Congrats on the Time 100 Best Invention, and so nice to be talking to you about this. I’m going to be wearing this to go out shopping today.
COLEMAN: Yeah, please let me know what you think. It’s tough to design a mask that fits everyone. So, we’ve got some tricks and tips on www.help.breathe99.com if you are finding it tough to get a perfect seal on your face.
IVAN: Alright, I will check that out, and I will let you know. One more thing I wanted to ask you about. I remember there was a pledge that Max made when he was talking about the future before, and that was the one to one mask pledge. Can you tell me about that right now? What is that and how is that going?
COLEMAN: Yes, absolutely. We were really hopeful to start doing this right away. Unfortunately just due to the nature of running a business and the costs of everything we haven’t been able to start doing that immediately. We have donated big chunks of masks to various healthcare groups and research centers, but the one for one is really our just aspirational goal right now. We hope to be doing that as soon as we can, but it’s still in the cards for sure.
IVAN: That’s wonderful to hear. Well thanks for spending your time with me today. It was so nice catching up and finding out all about Breathe99 and these filter packs. It looks like a great product. We don’t usually do product stuff, but this was just so timely and apt, and I just wanted to make sure I found out as much as I could about it. So, thanks for spending your time with me today. It’s been wonderful talking to you again.
COLEMAN: Yeah. You too Ivan. Thanks for having me. I hope your B2 will keep you safe.
IVAN: Thank you. I hope so too. Coleman Rollins is with Breathe99, makers of the sustainable B2 Mask and you can find him online at www.Breathe99.com.
You’ve been listening to The TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is email@example.com. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thanks for listening.
This is Episode 109 of The TEN7 Podcast. It was recorded on December 4, 2020 and first published on February 3, 2021. Podcast runtime is 29 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.
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