Think at London Business School
Why a Sloan alumnus with expertise in scaling up companies joined a non-profit that tackles the loneliness epidemic in young adults
By Alison Benson
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last February, Amine Arezki found himself glued to the TV, watching the ramifications unfold as the first signs of the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) emerged.
“There was so much drama around it,” Arezki recalls. “You could switch to any channel and the topic was the mask. One day you’d hear that we don’t need the mask. The next they said we had to wear one.”
Panic-buying had decimated the global supply of PPE and governments had instructed all retailers to reserve production for frontline healthcare workers. The US Surgeon General tweeted: “Seriously people – stop buying masks. They are not effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus…”
“There were a lot of statements like that,” says Arezki. “But what became apparent was that there was this worldwide shortage of masks. Everybody was worrying about the situation and left to fend for themselves. I saw people in the streets attaching strange things to their faces – plastic bottles, plastic bags, water coolers, orange peel – just to protect themselves.”
Aside from the misinformation overload, Arezki noticed that China and India were the main suppliers of the masks, and that transportation of the product had ground to a halt. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we start producing the mask in Europe? At least for a short period.’ I have skills in designing something in 3D – it’s my hobby – so I made the first mock-up.” This was the genesis of A Mask for All: a three-person project to provide a 3D printable mask for free.
Arezki, a French-Algerian based in Stuttgart, Germany, met the other two people who would be fundamental to the project during an open Zoom call organised by GoFundMe CMO Musa Tariq on 20 March, 2020. One was Tito Melega, former chief creative director of Ford, based in LA. The other was Justin Nussbaum, founder of a 3D printing startup in Tennessee.
“The three of us realised we all had the same goal,” recalls Arezki. “We started meeting online every day around 7pm. They were doing their stuff in their time zones; the next day I’d get their feedback and do my task. It was rolling out very, very efficiently. One thing we agreed on from the start is that we didn’t want to compete with businesses which made approved masks for medical use. We weren’t doing this to earn money, but to help people. We put out that design, licence-free, so anyone who had a 3D printer, or knew someone with one, could use it. There are millions of 3D printers in the world, so we figured if each one printed 10 masks a day, that’s already a lot.”
After working day and night for just one week, they had the first prototype and said: “We have to launch it now.”
The mask was launched on 28 March 2020 on a budget of $0. Advertising, PR and webinars were supplied by “a lot of partners who were supporting us for free”, including the Hollywood actor Pamela Holt, who made a video on how to use the mask.
Within a week, it was being printed across five continents, in “countries you’d never think of,” says Arezki. “We went from being a centralised production unit to a factory spread around the globe. Even during the first few days we had thousands of downloads. A lot of people were reaching out to us, including hospitals.”
Scalable to fit different face sizes, the mask also has impressive green credentials. “It’s not something you use once and throw away. It’s durable, you can put it in the dishwasher, sanitise it, change the filter.”
A month after its launch, Arezki received a call from a GP in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, with an interesting request. “She said, ‘I like the design of your mask, but we work in an environment where we have people with hearing difficulties who can’t lip-read if a mask is covering our mouths. Can you make your mask transparent?”
Arezki, Melega and Nussbaum quickly rose to the challenge and created the transparent version. ‘AMaskForAll-Smile’ was launched in May 2020. As well as helping the hearing-impaired feel less isolated, it has been used to aid autistic children, who lip-read as they often can’t sustain eye contact. “If masks are going to become an everyday accessory in this world, these issues have to be tackled,” says Arezki.
Interestingly, his confidence to create the mask came from designing a robotic dog with a 3D printer. A slick, black creation called iXeraBot, it’s a trusted companion that can walk, dance and kick a football – but not yet bark. “I had fun making it, but it was also a challenge,” says Arezki. “I got the idea from Boston Dynamics, who had designed a robot dog for £75K. I wanted to create something similar and simpler, at a much lower price. It was also important to see if I could get people to sponsor me… and people from South Korea sponsored me with some very expensive motors.
“The dog gave me the confidence to create the mask outside the comfort zone of a large corporation. I wanted to see how many people I could reach if I started from nothing.”
Masks and dogs aside, Arezki has a not-inconsequential day job: strategy director for autonomous driving at Thales, which deals in digital, “deep-tech” innovations and new business models. When asked what has been his most challenging project in his 11 years there, he says: “It’s always the current one.” Today that is RailBot™, an autonomous train system for mainline railways.
“We didn’t do this for the plaudits or for the visibility. We just wanted to do something to help people, when they really needed it”
“This is very special for me,” Arezki says. “It will solve a lot of problems in terms of mobility, people and goods, and it will, of course, be greener. When there’s a shortage of drivers or technical problems, you’ll still have the trains running.” The prototype is due in 2023 and the first trains are expected to run in 2025.
In the middle of all these projects, Arezki is studying for an EMBA at London Business School. “I’d been thinking about doing it for at least 10 years. But now is the right time to look back on my career, fill any gaps and learn more. I want to strike a better balance between technology, business strategy and marketing – and LBS is the right fit. Executive MBAs are designed for people like me, who work 100%. It’s every other weekend and exams are during the weekends as well. I couldn’t do anything different from this one.”
Arezki says it’s his curiosity and creativity that keeps him moving forward. Resilience is also a huge part of his make-up – something he developed at an early age, growing up in civil-war-torn Algeria in the 1990s. “Every day, when you went to school or to work, you didn’t know if you’d come back,” he says.
His father is a professor in neurology and his mother a physiotherapist and former captain of the Algerian national basketball team. “They are intellectuals, and every intellectual in Algeria was threatened by terrorists, telling them ‘You have to stop working’,” says Arezki. “But they were strong and carried on – and protected their three children [Amine, his brother Samir and younger sister Lilia]. We had to go to school and come straight home. I wasn’t allowed to go to nightclubs, parties, or play sports in a club... It was hard, but it was the right thing. I lost a lot of friends in Algeria, friends my own age. I’ve seen terrible, crazy things. Of course, it’s traumatic, but step by step it makes you stronger. And you move forward.”
After an electronic engineering degree in Algeria, he acquired a master’s in robotics and smart systems at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, then got a scholarship at Rutgers University in New Jersey to do an internship, working on a robotics project for medical applications.
He remembers, “Funnily enough, at work I never saw myself as a developer. There are many good engineers who can do that better than me. I was always trying to see what’s new, what’s coming, and trying to push. What drives me is improving things.”
The mask hasn’t gone unrecognised. It’s on permanent display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC; a prestigious science journal ran a feature on it; and it was shortlisted for the ADC awards – the Oscars of craft and innovation. “That really was a big deal,” says Arezki. “We were competing with MasterCard, Google, Patagonia… these big, big, big brands.
“But we didn’t do this for the plaudits or for the visibility. We just wanted to do something to help people, when they really needed it. That was our driver. We thought, if only one mask was printed and one life saved because of it, then it’s enough.”