Brandon Leonard, left, and Peter Whitby, right, of O2 Canada pose with researchers Raheleh Givehchi and Zhongchao Tan during testing of their reusable dust masks.

Brandon Leonard, left, and Peter Whitby, right, of O2 Canada pose with Waterloo Engineering researchers Raheleh Givehchi and Zhongchao Tan during testing of their reusable dust mask.

Startup companies are cropping up all over Waterloo Region, but to grow they often need support.

That’s where University of Waterloo mechanical and mechatronics engineering professor Zhongchao Tan steps in, helping to sow the seeds for success.

“A lot of startup companies are short of technical support and that’s become a bottleneck for them to grow bigger faster,” he says. “There are many smaller companies in the community struggling and if we support them we help them grow.”

Tan knows all about that.

Zhongchao Tan, who tested dust masks for O2 Canada.

Zhongchao Tan in his Air Pollution Research and Innovation Laboratory at the University of Waterloo.

Two years ago he started working with O2 Canada, a startup company that designs reusable air filtration masks and was founded by Waterloo graduates.

They approached Tan, the director of Waterloo Engineering’s Air Pollution Research and Innovation Laboratory, because they didn’t have enough technical background.

He then studied O2 Canada’s dust mask along with 10 others on the market and found none of them worked very well because they didn’t seal perfectly around the face.

Tan, who also has cross appointments in chemical engineering and civil and environmental engineering, suggested some improvements.

The company tweaked the design before sending the dust mask back to Tan. He retested it in the lab and found the new model sealed perfectly, making it the best dust mask on the market.

Dust mask unique in crowded market

Today, Tan still has a seat at the table, clearing the air for potential investors about what makes O2 Canada so unique in a market teeming with dust masks.

As one of the world’s foremost air pollution experts, Tan’s knowledge has given the company the confidence to manufacture its product, says O2 Canada CEO Peter Whitby.

In China, where Tan points out air quality is much poorer due to severe air pollution, people sometimes wear dust masks every day.

“This is important research to many people in the world, especially China,” he says.

With a perfect seal, the dust mask and filter only deliver clean air. They work with an air quality app so users can check pollution levels in their area.

‘We help the world move forward’

The dust mask also separates from its base so customers can switch designs to suit their fashion tastes or to appeal to children. And because customers only replace the filter inside, the product is environmentally friendly.

Tan, who already has two international patents, is interested in developing a biodegradable filter.

Now other companies are looking to take advantage of Tan’s expertise. In fact, as air pollution has grown into a global concern, his lab has tripled in size since he came to Waterloo in 2010.

Even though the demand for his expertise is outpacing his lab space, Tan is anxious to work with as many companies as he can.

“The Faculty of Engineering  and the University of Waterloo work closely with the industry because that’s what engineering is all about — we help the world move forward,” he says.