NC State students begin entrepreneurial ventures despite COVID-19

Repost of the Original article by Technician. Photo credit: Katie Lawson

The demands of COVID-19 have inspired NC State students to use their skills to start their own entrepreneurial efforts and support community health and other local businesses. Three different entrepreneurial ventures from campus have especially made an impact.

Two NC State students, Katie Lawson, a third-year studying industrial engineering, and Eric Swanson, a fourth-year studying industrial engineering, are working at the heart of Easy Masks, which offers a reusable, washable face mask knitted by a fifth-generation hosiery mill in North Carolina. This business is an unlikely partnership between EHOP Health, a health coaching company in Apex; Harriss & Covington, a hosiery mill in High Point; and Weaver Street Market, a grocery store firm in Raleigh.

Lawson and Swanson function as industrial engineering consultants at Easy Masks, working on safe packaging as well as maximizing quality and quantity of these masks. 

“The hosiery mill used to produce socks; the lockdown deemed this business non-essential,” Lawson said. “With the mills having the equipment and yarn to manufacture masks, we decided about two months ago to start prototyping masks. We added an additional filter of polyester and cotton for everyday use.”

This has brought employment back to all three of these businesses with a patent pending. Every two-pack of masks costs $19.99. The filtration standards of these masks are high, with a CDC recommendation of two layers with non-woven inserts, providing 30 Grams per Square Meter (GSM) which filters 85% of particles. GSM is a typical measurement of how heavy fabric is. Lower GSM ensures breathability and good filtration. For reference, surgical masks are typically 25 GSM. The journey to this last product was a long one, according to Lawson.

“We went through three iterations, each one drastically different from the last,” Lawson said. “In the end, we made masks with a customizable filter and nose bridge to fit people with beards and glasses. Our effort was to make them as comfortable as possible.”

Another student harnessing unused resources from NC State’s campus during the lockdown is Hartley LeRoy, a graduate student in electrical engineering. He has been volunteering his time in the Entrepreneurship Garage on Centennial, using 3D printers to make face shields for front-line health care workers across the state.

“NC State and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering set up a drop-off box next to Engineering Building 3 to drop off supplies, including 3D printed masks,” LeRoy said. “It was part of a volunteer network, and I had worked as an Entrepreneurship Garage technician in the past and had an understanding of 3D printing, which is all we needed to make these masks. I made a total of 36 masks, averaging about six a day.”

Emily Neville is an NC State graduate who began Reborn Clothing in her second year. During COVID-19, Reborn Clothing has partnered with other local brands, including Fullsteam BreweryVideri Chocolate Factory, Counter Culture CoffeeRaleigh Denim Workshop and Murphy’s Naturals. Neville is spearheading the Triangle Bundle Project, where North Carolinians can buy bundles of products to support local businesses.

In addition, Reborn is donating 15% of proceeds from each Reborn T-shirt to help the Carolina Textile District produce Personal Protective Equipment for those on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

For more information, students can find a list of startups from campus here.