Clearly different: Vars startup's see-through masks catch RCMP's eye

Alexandre Cloutier
Alexandre Cloutier, the co-founder and CEO of Vars-based manufacturing company InnovaTools, wears one of the company's plastic face shields. The startup is now testing clear plastic masks for the RCMP. Photo courtesy Alexandre Cloutier

Alexandre Cloutier’s relentless quest to “make a better mousetrap” when it comes to personal protective equipment in the fight against COVID-19 could add his latest invention to the arsenal of the country’s largest police force.

Cloutier is the co-founder and CEO of Ottawa-based manufacturer InnovaTools, a seven-person company that pivoted from producing home construction equipment and accessories to PPE when the pandemic struck.

In April, Cloutier heeded the federal government’s call for prototypes of products that could help combat COVID-19, proposing a clear plastic mask that was reusable, easy to clean and flexible enough to be folded up and put in a person’s pocket.

The feds liked what they saw. On Tuesday, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains announced that the RCMP will test hundreds of the masks over the next six months under the Innovative Solutions Canada program, which helps fund the research and development of early-stage prototypes devised by Canadian companies.  

“We’ll never be able to compete against … Bauer and all those big guys,” says Cloutier, referring to the hockey equipment manufacturer that began making face shields once the coronavirus appeared in North America.

“But if we can come up with solutions that are quick and efficient, more comfortable and more protective … all those little things are what we try and offer. We want to make a better mousetrap.” 

A carpenter by trade who also runs his own construction company, Cloutier launched InnovaTools in early 2018 with money out of his own pocket and financing from the Business Development Bank of Canada. 

Thinking outside the box comes naturally to the Quebec City native, who seems to have a penchant for challenging conventional wisdom.

“I’ve always questioned why everything is done a certain way,” he says with a chuckle.

Now, he hopes that iconoclastic streak is about to pay off. 

Over the next couple of months, InnovaTools’ engineers will put the plastic masks through the paces in rigorous wind tunnel tests to see how they stack up against N95 respirators ​– the gold standard of PPE, so named because they filter out at least 95 per cent of airborne particles ​– and regular surgical masks.

“Our goal is to be somewhere in between those two, hopefully,” Cloutier says. He says he’s already fielding inquiries from school boards, other federal departments and even foreign governments that are “intrigued” by his product, which allows people to see a mask-wearer’s mouth, potentially making communication easier.

The see-through PPE is just one of several products the Vars-based enterprise has rolled out in response to COVID-19. Among its other innovations are a flexible wrap-around plastic shield that covers the entire face and ears, as well as a wristband that triggers a warning buzzer when wearers lift their arms toward their faces.

“We tried to come up with different solutions that nobody else offers. We develop products that people don’t even know exist.”

While the device isn’t foolproof, “it works surprisingly well,” Cloutier says. “If anything, it’s more annoying because we touch our faces way too often.”

Still, sales of the high-tech bracelet, which retails for under $20, haven’t exactly been brisk. Like many a founder, Cloutier’s been so laser-focused on developing ideas he hopes the market will embrace, he hasn’t had time to actually come up with an effective plan for selling them. 

“We tried to come up with different solutions that nobody else offers,” he says. “That’s where our company has a little bit of a challenge. We develop products that people don’t even know exist.”

While Cloutier has no shortage of ideas, most of them are on the back burner right now as he concentrates on the RCMP project. He’s hoping full-scale manufacturing of the masks can get under way within six months, and with any luck, more orders will start flowing in once the public starts seeing Mounties don the new-look PPE.

“It’s not perfect, but we’re working towards our goal and we’re doing the best we can to survive,” Cloutier says, noting the company’s revenues have held steady during the pandemic but haven’t really grown.

“We’ve got lots of work. We’d love to have more people … especially from a designer and mechanical engineer standpoint, but we’ll take them when they come and juggle our projects as we move along.”