O2 Industries and the UFC are officially working together to improve athlete health and safety. Masks and facial covering have become a rather important part of life these days, but this pairing looks to be effective beyond any pandemic.
In 2014, the Canadian tandem of Rich Szasz and Peter Whitby began on their journey with O2 Industries. Less than 10 years later and they’ve found enough success with their products to have reached a multi-year partnership with the biggest Mixed Martial Arts promotion in the world.
The partnership officially kicked off with the UFC’s big return to Fight Island this past weekend. For the first event of what will be five total, UFC 253 saw many of the fighters set to compete trying out their new respirators via O2.
In regards to exposure, this deal couldn’t have come at a better time for O2 as UFC 253 attracted plenty of attention thanks to the heated middleweight main event featuring undefeated champion and challenger, Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa. The TR2 design can be seen in several of the video packages that were produced during fight week. As can be seen in the cover photo above, Adesanya wore his to the official weigh-ins.
While the face coverings were not made specifically for virus protection, that is, unfortunately, a factor that the world has been faced with in six years after O2’s birth. Because of that, it has affected everyday life in more ways than one. And for athletes, in this case, MMA fighters in the UFC, training limitations, and extra precautions have presented themselves.
That’s where O2 comes into play.
After the news broke of the partnership, I caught up with one-half of the aforementioned founders, O2 CIO Rich Szasz to get some insight into everything O2 has to offer — from the UFC partnership to what the future holds overall.
Oh, on top of striking a deal with the UFC, O2 has also partnered with one of the greatest fighters of all time, former UFC welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre. Not exactly the worst person to have to help out.
We got into all that and much more.
Q: Right off the top, I have to know, what’s your background? How did you get to where you are today with O2 Industries?
A: “I’ve been an entrepreneur for 10 years — just opportunistic. Had a property management company that kind of turned into a furniture company. We were furnishing units and we quickly started importing furniture from mainland China. And that’s when I started traveling to Asia. A good friend of mine, Peter Whitby, who’s now co-founder and our CEO, he traveled with me to China. And that was really the first time we experienced air pollution. We were pretty lucky here where we are in Canada, specifically, we’ve got blue skies most of the time. So it was quite shocking to us when we saw polluted air, when we saw people walking around wearing masks, wearing face coverings in the middle of the afternoon.
“There was a specific incident, we were in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It was 2:00 PM in the afternoon and we couldn’t find the sun in the sky. That was quite shocking to us. So I said to Peter, ‘It would be cool if somebody made a jacket or a piece of clothing or something that came up over your face that protected these people from whatever this is.’ I don’t know what this is in the air but I do know that the face coverings they’re wearing don’t work to help them. My background before all of that was actually in the construction world. So I had a lot of experience wearing masks, respirators, I wore big cartridge respirators. I wore them all. Didn’t like wearing them, but I wore them all.
“There was never really one that I found that was really comfortable and breathable. But that was kind of the kickoff to this thing. We came back and I was running my company and Peter hired a designer. He hired a seamstress and he built this jacket. The goal was to slide a filter membrane in it, which today sounds like not that big of a deal, but back then was kind of revolutionary for its time. That’s where we started. We started building jackets with filter inserts. We quickly realized as a startup company it would be really tough to bring jackets to market, we can barely dress ourselves stylishly, let alone create a fashion brand with a purpose of helping people essentially breathe clean air. And so we kind of stepped back and we said, ‘Well, what are we really trying to accomplish with this company?’
“And we really drilled down after some exercises with some mentors and really the mission of the company was to help people breathe clean air. And we live by that. We’ve lived by that since that day. And we said, ‘Okay, well creating a hundred skews of jackets for seasons and colors and fashions and sizes is not going to do that fast enough or efficiently enough. So let’s just build one mask, let’s build a respirator and let’s build the best one in the world.’ So we partnered with the University of Waterloo here. There’s an air pollution research lab. We bought every mask in the market. We tested them all and developed this product, the O2 Curve, which is our first product in market. Since then we’ve sold hundreds of thousands of these in over 110 countries around the world.”
Q: If you didn’t have that experience in China do you think you still would have gotten into this?
A: “No, no way. I mean, this was back in 2014, right? This is way pre-pandemic, way pre any sort of a thought that you would ever see a city in North America with all of the people walking around wearing a face cover. So when we came back here and we saw the clean air that we experienced, we really felt that we needed to help. And so that’s where it came from. We were like, ‘Man, we’re so lucky here. We feel very blessed. We should do something to help these people.’ And so the goal was to create a product to sell into Asia, into India, into these markets that were third world, second world countries that were evolving and had a lot of air pollution. So that’s the idea. Now we’re in a pandemic and everybody’s making a mask or face covering and it’s pretty interesting to try to scale our company in this, but certainly was definitely where the inspiration came from.”
Q: Obviously, we didn’t expect the pandemic and you weren’t planning for virus filtration or anything, but your masks are good for preventing the spreading of COVID-19 too, right?
A: “We’ve obviously got to be careful with the messaging just from a legal standpoint because of the spread of the virus and it’s mutating and you can get it by touching your eyes. So we have to be careful about the claims we make specifically for COVID-19, but it does filter down to 0.1 microns. It filters our viral efficiency and bacterial efficiency which are 99.997 on the materials that we use. So yes, it works very, very well for things like that.”
Q: The big news is that you’re now incorporating this into the sports world to help out athletes. Specifically with the UFC fighters. How did that all come about?
A: “I’ll start with the journey of the TR2. So the Tactical Respirator 2, this is the one that you may have seen last weekend [at UFC 253] in and around the Octagon. A lot of the fighters were wearing it in and around. That journey started about two years ago. We realized there was an issue with lead inhalation in the tactical world — in the military world. So we were approached by a few special operations units which I can’t name. And they asked us, ‘Hey, we really liked your product. What do you think about doing something kind of custom for us?’ And so that’s where it started. We brought on some ex-special forces operators and we started developing a new respirator that worked for lead inhalation as a main thing.
“We wanted something that you could get a cheek weld on your rifle. So center cartridge, it’s when it has a cartridge respirator or cartridge filter instead of the flat filter. This whole thing was designed with the operator in mind. So built with operators for operators. The interesting thing is we built it for fighters. And so now our new slogan is ‘Protect the fighter,’ without too tactical. So it really lends itself well to the UFC, although not specifically designed for those guys. It is for protecting fighters. Francis Ngannou’s team reached out to us about two months ago. And they said, ‘Hey, we saw your TR1’s. We’d love to check them out. Can you send us a bunch?’ So we did, and actually, in his fight, a lot of his team was wearing the TR1’s in the Octagon.
“And that got some attention of some different characters, including Ian Munzberger, who is a prominent kind of name in and around the Octagon in the UFC, in the MMA world. He reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, guys, love what you do, this is super cool. Have you ever thought about working with the UFC?’ And that’s sort of where it started. We saw an opportunity to start developing a new respirator specifically for MMA fighters. Again, going back to the kind of thesis of this product, where it’s like, let’s build it for the most badass dudes on Earth and it’ll work for everybody. So we built it for the special forces. Anybody walking around the street could wear this. It’s pretty intimidating, you look like Bane. It also works on the gun range.
“It also works in the construction world, the industrial world. So we built it for the best and it kind of works for everybody. So now we’re like, ‘Okay, let’s, let’s build a new respirator that helps people get back to the gym.’ Because training, we know we can see it in the sports world right now. You know, there’s another NFL team that just went down because of a COVID scare. So we’re like, okay, we need to do something. These hard plastic shelled respirators, although they’re fantastic for their application, aren’t going to work in the sporting world. So what about a partnership, then the UFC and the MMA fighters, they train as hard or harder than any other athlete on Earth… let’s work with them. Let’s give them the TR2’s as an interim solution, so they can be safe when they’re in and around the Octagon, especially on Fight Island specifically for this five-week event. And then let’s develop something that gets them back to training and back in the gym.”
Q: How did the first official collaboration for UFC 253 go?
A: “I was hoping to be there because this is something that is not a typical respirator that you’ve ever seen before. It’s kind of hardcore, it’s really well built, but there are some things that you’d need to know when you’re putting it on and we didn’t really get a chance to interact with anybody. So it was sort of like fingers crossed and then UFC did an incredible job of somehow getting them on these guys. And most of them, I’d say nine out of 10 was actually wearing it properly, which we were like pretty blown away by, to be honest.
“So very happy about how the first event went and I think it’ll only improve from here. It’s a multi-year deal. But we were kind of in the dark, like fingers crossed that they even get there and if they do get there, anybody could grab them and go, ‘What the hell is this?’ And, you know, they put on a cloth mask, right? They actually put them on and they actually wore them. And we got a lot of great feedback and a lot of cool content from it. So we couldn’t be happier with how the first event went.”
Q: In terms of looks and functionality, the TR2 most reminds me of the Training Masks which are usable during athletic training of whatever kind. Your product can also comfortably be used for similar athletic training too, right?
A: “Absolutely. Especially the TR2. The TR1, we’ve got some high breathable filters, we call them max air filters. So it’s pretty good. The TR2 is a whole new level. You can breathe, you can full out run, we designed it for training and operation. Again, for operators. These guys are already carrying a hundred pounds of gear and running up a hill and then trying to hit a target while training and doing what they do. So it had to be breathable. That was the most important thing. And then functionality to ensure that they’re protected. Those are the key things.”
Q: In other big news, you guys have also partnered with the legendary Georges St-Pierre. How big of a deal is that?
A: “This was something we’d been working on for a few months. We are trying to again, develop this training respirator, not a training oxygen, high altitude air restricting thing. But an actual breathable face covering that protects the user and you can roll wearing it. That’s the goal. And so we couldn’t have found a better partner. He’s really excited about it. We met him about a month and a half ago. We did a little interview and he’s really, really excited to be a part of it. He’s seeing his training being affected right now because of COVID-19. He’s in Quebec, it’s illegal for gyms to be open, he’s training with a small team, and you just don’t get the same feedback by constantly training with the same people, especially in MMA, you have to constantly be switching it up.
“I’m not an MMA fighter myself, although I’m getting into it so that I can help develop this thing. But this is kind of what we’re learning is guys are having their growth stunted because they can’t train the way they used to. So if we can provide them with protection, so their whole team, their coaches, they can all be in there. They can communicate, it’s sealed on their face, they’re protected, and they can roll with different partners. That’s really the goal. And so he’s in and he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I don’t lose. So if I’m going to do this, we’re going to win.’ And I was just like, ‘Did we get that on camera…?? Okay!’ (laughs)
“He’s excited about the partnership and we’re obviously really excited. It’s cool because he’s a fellow Canadian and we can drive there, it’s about seven hours away and we can be there training with them. So that’s the goal. It was how do we find somebody local that we can train with and how do we find the best. He’s a superstar. So yeah, we’re very lucky to have him on the team.”
Q: If you could go back in time to when you first started this journey with O2 Industries, what advice would you give yourself?
A: “I think it would be invest in people faster. We’ve now got an amazing team around us and it’s actually allowed me to focus on what I really enjoy and what I’m really good at, but it’s taken almost six years to get there. Over those six years, I was doing the shipping and logistics and I was doing the marketing stuff and sales calls and pitches, and so was Peter, and we were doing everything and it came from a lack of cash flow, really. But the core team that we had, we inspired and they worked for almost free and they would miss paydays and they were our core team, like the ‘OGs’ in the company.
“They have been there from the beginning. So I guess the advice would be, try to inspire more people faster to get involved because there was a big kind of lull where we weren’t crushing it. And that was because I was like still focused on doing all of the things that I wasn’t actually necessarily good at. As a founder, I think you generally think that you have to do it all and so you do, and you’re in the office 16 hours a day, six days a week, and we’re still doing that, but at least now I’m back to doing what I’m really good at, which is creating, seeing opportunity, working with smart people to build cool stuff. But we lost some time on Peter and I doing the things we’re not good at.
“So that’s what would be the biggest thing for me is to go back and try to inspire more people to get involved sooner, that are specialized and good at what they do. And just support them.”
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