Nate Barr is trying to build a better face mask.

The founder of Portland-based Zootility Tools, which got its start making animal-shaped metal multi-tools the size of credit cards, has turned his company’s laser-cutting machines on stretchable fabric to create masks that cover the mouth and nose but reduce fogging of eyeglasses.

“It sits pretty easily on the ears and spreads the tension out evenly,” Barr said Tuesday while showing the mask to a visitor at Zootility’s new facility on Outer Congress Street in Portland. “So even once the pandemic’s over and people aren’t buying masks in the U.S. anymore, hopefully we can adapt what we’ve learned here into the outdoors (market).”

Currently made of spandex, nylon and rayon instead of traditional cotton, the masks also could be fashioned from neoprene, making them warm enough for skiing or other wintertime pursuits, Barr said. In fact, his first designs back in March were made with neoprene.

Last month, the Maine Technology Institute awarded Zootility a $24,000 seed investment to develop a line of face masks and to see whether they are commercially viable.

“The design appeared to be unique, combining the single die cut of the mask with the ability to insert a filter,” said Shane Beckim, a senior investment officer at MTI. “They also have the ability to make them in multiple sizes, which you don’t really see on the market.”

The product, called SnapMask, has an inner and outer section that are fastened together with two snaps. The outer section includes loops that cross and go behind the ears. No sewing is required for assembly, and unlike some cloth masks, there is no elastic for stretching behind ears nor wire to bend over the nose.

The Comfort version comes in three sizes to fit small, medium and large heads and retails for $14.95. A deluxe version called the Fit is made from more durable fabric and has five slits on each loop in order to adjust the length and create a more snug fit. It retails for $17.95.

Nate Barr, owner of Zootility, says the masks that the Portland company is making won’t fog glasses because breath doesn’t escape through the top of the mask. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Whether consumers are willing to pay that price for a face covering remains to be seen, but Zootility started producing 1,000 units per week late last month and plans to scale up weekly production to 5,000 once the transition from East Bayside to Outer Congress is complete.

Beckim said part of the grant is intended for market research.

“I think they’ll figure out whether $15 for a mask is the right price point,” he said. “Will people pay a little more for something that’s comfortable and able to use filters? If people don’t, they’ll have to pivot and go with another alternative. But one of the advantages they have is that they control their own manufacturing, so they can make adjustments on the fly.”

Barr said he’s working on a third design, which he calls Unity, that will have no snaps and will wrap around the head in the fashion of a neck warmer, only lighter and more breathable.

“For that outdoors spirit and people who are going to be exerting themselves,” he said, “that style is more comfortable, easier to pull up when you need it, lighter weight, less constrictive and more flexible to move with you.”

Zootility nearly went out of business when the pandemic hit home in March. Barr saw revenue drop 95 percent in one week and was forced to cut a staff of 15 down to four. At that point, he wasn’t sure how long they’d be able to make payroll.

John Bemis places the inner fabric onto a mask while demonstrating how to assemble one of the masks that Zootility is making. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Ever the tinkerer, he designed an antimicrobial gadget made mostly of copper that could fit on a key chain and be used instead of fingers on keypads, elevator buttons and door handles. Zootility has manufactured and shipped 50,000 Careful Keys over the past three months and is moving into a 25 percent larger facility.

All but four of the furloughed employees have returned, and if the masks prove to be a hit, Barr said he can bring back the whole team and perhaps add more staff. He said the pandemic has forced the company to simplify its product line to a few dozen products from what had been 1,200 SKUs (stock keeping units).

Had he tried to make such changes in normal times, he said, there may have been pushback. But when livelihoods are at stake, the calculus changes.

“It’s allowed us to shed a lot of things that we’ve learned over the years are not as profitable for us to be doing,” Barr said. “We’ll take those lessons and go forward, figure out what’s the best version of us. It’s actually been really healthy, which is kind of a strange outcome.”


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