The year 2020 has been a trial for people across the globe. For many, this year’s crises have also inspired growth and motivation. When Jackie Lee (BSc ’06), Alan Soong (BASc ’08) and Dr. Brian Li (BASc '09) saw that health care professionals were struggling from a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), they created Masks for Covid. The organization combines off-the-shelf, full-face snorkel masks with readily available filters to make a comfortable and cost-effective PPE solution.

We caught up with Jackie and Alan to ask how they became co-founders of this unique organization. Read on to read her answers, and watch a virtual panel where Jackie and Alan to discussed how the global pandemic can spur innovation.

What did you study at Waterloo, and what did your career look like prior to Masks for Covid?

Jackie LeeJackie: I did Honours Science at Waterloo with a minor in Psychology. I started Recruit My Friends as a student at Waterloo and have been operating it for 15 years in San Francisco, Toronto, New York and London UK. I am still running this business alongside the Masks For Covid project.

Alan: I studied Systems Design Engineering, and had always been interested in entering the medical device space. By the time I was in fourth year, I had done co-ops at Sunnybrook's Medical Biophysics Lab and Baylis Medical. I was then brought onto a project under Dr. Brian Courtney (Founder and CEO of Conavi Medical) at Sunnybrook by my good friend and classmate Dr. Brian Li. The work was part of a fourth year design project, and my plan was to continue working on the project after I graduated, which would then become the first device that was sold by Conavi Medical.

What’s the number one skill you took from your time at Waterloo? How has it helped you to found your current company?

Alan SoongJackie: Networking and creating meaningful relationships is by far the number one skill I took from my time at Waterloo. It is directly related to our Masks For Covid projects as we were all friends at UW that kept in touch and many of our team members came from my business clients at Recruit My Friends.

Alan: The number one skill I took from Waterloo was the ability to break down a relatively complex problem and design for it. This has been immensely important in allowing me to design and iterate through the various aspects of the devices that Conavi manufacturers. It has also allowed me to think about the bigger picture in how the device should be manufactured, tested and used.

Being an entrepreneur is a huge challenge, filled with obstacles that could derail your product development and growth. What keeps you going through all the chaos?

Jackie: The constant learning is what excites me and keeps me going through chaos. Even in the midst of a storm there is something to be learned and so paying attention to the details and figuring out creative ways to drive results is really the way to move forwards and make progress everyday especially in tough times like many of us are going through due to the COVID crisis.

Alan: I was lucky enough that I was mostly focused on the technical aspects of the device. Having said this, I was still exposed to the successes and failures of our product as we went through testing and demonstrations. What keeps me going is 1) the fact that I know these devices can make a difference and save lives and 2) the support of my colleagues with the same passion and drive. I think for an entrepreneur, who you surround yourself is absolutely critical in your ability to succeed.

Jackie Lee graduated from the University of Waterloo Honours Science program in 2006. During her undergraduate degree she started her first business, Recruit My Friends, which is a referral-only recruiting firm for Engineers in North America and the UK. Recruit My Friends has incubated a Careers Platform for engineers to track and manage their careers. Jackie's passion lays in helping engineers meet their potential and in bringing high performing teams together at critical growth times. While studying at the University of Waterloo, Jackie raised $1 million in donations and she continues to fundraise for Ontario hospitals during the Covid-19 crisis. Jackie is an active angel investor in software start-ups and is dedicated to building the Canadian economy.

Alan Soong completed his undergraduate degree in Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo. As his fourth year design project he worked together with Dr. Brian Li, under Dr. Brian Courtney, to develop a novel intracardiac catheter at Conavi Medical Inc. He has since continued to grow with Conavi Medical and is now the Catheter Development Manager. Jackie Lee, Alan and Dr. Brian Li have joined forces again to help lead the engineering team at Masks for Covid to develop a potentially reusable full face mask with integrated ventilator filter.