Natasha Duwin & Tobias Franoszek of OCTO Safety Devices: “Stay calm during times of tension”

What scares us the most, even beyond this pandemic, is the anti-science and anti-expertise attitudes that have been bubbling and brewing in our culture for several decades — the rejection of objective, observable reality. As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of […]

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What scares us the most, even beyond this pandemic, is the anti-science and anti-expertise attitudes that have been bubbling and brewing in our culture for several decades — the rejection of objective, observable reality.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natasha Duwin and Tobias Franoszek.

Natasha Duwin is a multidisciplinary entrepreneur who was born and raised in Argentina, where she attended medical school and art school before coming to America. Natasha landed a position with Discovery Channel, a transformational role that involved working with the internet during its golden days and leading the Discovery Channel’s vast efforts to expand its reach in South America. She went on to earn her Master’s in Fine Arts at Florida International University, honing her creative passions and learning more about the business world along the way. Together with Tobias Franoszek, she became co-founder and president of Kipu Systems, an end-to-end cloud-based electronic medical records solution developed specifically for addiction treatment centers. After selling the company, Natasha and Tobias continued on the health and wellness path, ultimately founding the company OCTO Safety Devices™.

Tobias Franoszek grew up steeped in the artistic environment of his native Berlin where he was instilled with the creative prowess he’s become known for in technology, healthcare and business. He started his professional career designing Management Information Systems and then joined Concept! AG, one of Germany’s early digital agencies. After moving to the U.S. and founding multiple companies including Kipu Systems, Tobias sold the company with his business partner Natasha Duwin. The pair came across a glaring need for effective respirator masks. Introduced to a promising respirator mask concept in 2017, Tobias and Natasha took over the patents in December 2019 and founded the company OCTO Safety Devices™.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

Natasha Duwin was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her upbringing was very traditional, and it included being educated in a Scottish school, from pre-K to high school: this is where she learned English, as well as Highland dancing (instead of the more traditional ballet). After high school Natasha travelled the world, settling for a while in New York and Tokyo, before finding her spot in Miami a couple of decades ago. She completed her education, receiving a Master’s in Fine Arts with a concentration in Fibers. Her artistic practice revolves around the idea of how to construct a strong female identity without falling into the traps of tradition and expectations, using traditionally “feminine” techniques, such as weaving and embroidery.

Tobias Franoszek grew up in West Berlin. At the time, it was a free city-island, enclosed by a wall, surrounded by the communist block. It was a poor and sexy city full of art and spies: the late 1960’s were in full swing, and when punk rock arrived, it flourished. It was an amazing place to discover the world as a teenager.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Natasha: I think I’m still on the hunt for that kind of experience with a book.

Tobias: For me, it was A Confederacy of Dunces. That book opened my eyes to how disconnected and ignorant even the most brilliant of minds can be. No other book has made me cringe so much.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Funnily enough, what currently animates us was verbalized best by Aaron Sorkin, in the Talk column of the NYTimes Magazine, discussing putting something creative into the world:

“… [it] is like trying to walk from here to there with water in your hands. By the time you get to there, there’s not going to be much water left. But every once in a while, if you collaborate with great people, not only do you get from here to there with a lot of that water left, it turns into champagne by the time you’ve done it.”

That was in March 2020, just as we were in the throes of responding to the pandemic. We were a small team with a creative solution, united in trying to help as many people as we could in a horrific situation. We felt so lucky to be able to do something good, and we worked tirelessly to achieve it.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Years before SARS-CoV-2 was a glimmer in a bat’s eye, we had begun work on making a better respirator mask. We knew there was ample room for improvement. The current N95 masks were developed in the 70s, and very few of the technological leaps we’ve seen everywhere else since then seem to have touched them. This became particularly apparent during and after the SARS epidemic of 2003. 43% of fatalities were among healthcare workers, and many of the survivors reported that they put themselves at higher risk because they just couldn’t stand wearing uncomfortable, hot respirators for long periods of time.

Shortly thereafter, the Department of Veterans Affairs initiated a broad, interagency effort: the Better Respiratory Equipment using Advanced Technologies for Healthcare Employees (Project B.R.E.A.T.H.E.) Working Group, whose purpose was to develop a set of consensus recommendations to improve respiratory protective equipment used by healthcare workers. The B.R.E.A.T.H.E. multidisciplinary team had a broad range of expertise, including pandemic and emergency preparedness, infectious disease medicine and epidemiology, respirator and personal protective equipment policy and regulation, occupational and environmental medicine, respirator and materials science, infection control, respirator physiology and physics and biosecurity. Their final report consisted of 28 recommendations for consideration by respirator manufacturers.

At the risk of stating the obvious, manufacturers did not embrace these recommendations — and that’s where we saw an opportunity.

As 2020 was just getting started, we incorporated our company, OCTO Safety Devices, and our plan was to work on research and development, design, and certifications for most of the year for the OCTO Respirator Mask. We were so proud to be the first — and still the only — company to address the 28 recommendations outlined by Project B.R.E.A.T.H.E. Then we started to hear about this strange new disease in an obscure city in China, and how the city was being shut down, and how the disease was spreading uncontrollably.

Very quickly the OCTO team reached a consensus that we had to help, even if we didn’t think our respirator mask was 100% “ready for prime time.”

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

We don’t really believe in heroes as mythical creatures possessing super-human qualities that allow them to “save” the rest of us — nor do we believe in white knights, or fairy godmothers, or the superheroes of movies and comic books. Instead, we know that regular people are capable of achieving things that initially seem to be impossible: by keeping their cool, being strategic, staying focused, and working collaboratively with friends and peers.

So when we think of heroes, that’s what we see — those people who have overcome tremendous odds to make a real difference in the lives of others.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

We know all real heroes are human beings doing the best they can to overcome seemingly monstrous odds. In the face of any great challenge, there are five key things a person needs:

  1. Don’t lose sight of the goal
  2. Stay calm during times of tension
  3. Think things through — again and again and again
  4. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate
  5. Don’t believe you’re indispensable, or that only you can do “it”

If you feel like you’re on a “hero’s journey” and you practice these five characteristics diligently, you’ll get where you need to go and become who you need to be.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

What we label as heroism is usually a function of serendipity — being at the right place at the right time, and being able to step up to the plate in that moment. Everybody has this capacity!

But the people who take that extra step into action — that’s usually about the burning desire to make things better for the people around them, even if it’s at a small, local level. That’s why, we think, so many true heroes go unsung.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

We had planned on spending several months of 2020 conducting research, development and design for the OCTO Respirator Mask, but then the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a pandemic. We decided that we could not keep our respirator mask behind closed doors any longer, and we acted accordingly.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

Anybody that does the right thing, who takes that step into action, is a hero in our eyes, in ways big and small. All frontline workers during this pandemic have been heroic. Not only the first responders and healthcare workers, but the teachers, delivery drivers, construction crews, restaurant and grocery store personnel. They’ve all been heroic. But also the working parents, and the newly graduated young adults with their whole lives ahead of them — any person who was thrown off course yet persevered through this tumultuous, jarring time. It’s heroic.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

What scares us the most, even beyond this pandemic, is the anti-science and anti-expertise attitudes that have been bubbling and brewing in our culture for several decades — the rejection of objective, observable reality.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

Crisis brings out the best in people, as well as the worst, and we choose to focus on the former; everyday people doing the right thing, for themselves and their communities.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

Probably the most disappointing behavior is politicizing masks, and equating the idea of being asked to wear a mask with tyranny.

But we’ve been inspired by frontline workers everywhere who really bore the brunt of this pandemic and have been brave and strong and tireless in their work. We’ve seen scientists develop vaccines faster than ever before using both new and old technologies. We’ve seen communities rallying to help individuals — neighbors buying and delivering groceries, checking on the vulnerable. People are showing up for each other in ways that show strength and vulnerability simultaneously, and that’s beautiful.

It has been a difficult year for us all but there is so much to inspire us.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

Yes: there is a need for more formal education that does not result in crippling, life-long debt.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

There are several. Among the most important are a strengthened safety net, universal healthcare, universal and excellent childcare, flexible workplaces and workforce, access to education, and incorporating the lessons of how important it is to have strong personal connections.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Making the world a better place is the worthiest goal, whether it’s in big ways or within your own community — from working to create structural change in our society to planting more trees or starting a community garden.

Start with what is closest to you and take each additional step as it becomes apparent. To quote Amanda Gorman, with our emphasis: “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

You are both people of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A match-making service for non-romantic connections.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle and Barack Obama — not just for what they have already done, but for what we know about their future plans, for themselves and their foundation.

How can our readers follow you online?






This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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