How this clip restored one man’s dream of being a pilot

Image caption, The clips can be easily 3D-printed

Earlier this summer BBC Business spoke to Alex Wickens, who gave up his dream of becoming a commercial pilot when the UK went into lockdown. He set up a business instead, selling clips for face masks. It proved so successful that his flying dream is now back on track and he started at flight school in September. So what happened to him and his business, and who actually invented the crafty clip?

Aspiring pilot Alex Wickens, 22, abandoned his place at flight school when Covid struck and instead took a job in a supermarket stacking shelves. He had undertaken several months of tests and was going to take out a large loan to cover the course fees. But he didn't think the risk was worth it, as the aviation industry was in such difficulty.

Like many young people, he put his dreams on hold during the pandemic.

We covered his story as part of the BBC's Our Work, Our Future series, looking at how young people's prospects have been affected by the pandemic.

It was while working in the supermarket that Alex spotted a problem. Glasses can fog up indoors when you wear a face mask. He sourced a clip that fixed the issue and started a business selling them in the UK, called MistyClip.

This video can not be played

To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, WATCH: Many spectacle wearers encounter this problem wearing masks

His business immediately did well and continued to grow rapidly after we spoke with him.

He lives at home and had to enlist his whole family – as well as neighbourhood friends – to help fulfil orders. They struggled to cope, at the peak, with 50 orders a minute.

The business sent more than 150,000 clips out to customers in June 2021. The money he made was enough to pay for him to go flight school, if he wanted to.

However, Alex himself did not invent the crafty clips that prevent fogging – so who did?

The French Connection

In fact the face mask clips were developed by an engineer called Grégory Carliez from Normandy, northern France.

He is chief technical officer at a collaboration space called Normandy Ecospace, near Dieppe. It is a co-working space founded in 2018, which runs a production line of 300 3D printers. They mainly fulfil orders for local entrepreneurs and make prototypes for industry and designers.

Image source, Normandy EcospaceImage caption, Grégory Carliez developed the face mask clip

Mr Carliez came up with the idea for the clip during the first wave of Covid, when mask-wearing became obligatory in France. He wanted a solution that would allow him to wear his mask all day, without interruption.

The clip secures the top of the mask's seam around the bridge of the nose, ensuring breath exits away from the glasses.

It took one week to develop the clip from the first prototype to final product, testing different iterations, he says.

There are other similar designs now available to download in open-source 3D-printing communities like Thingiverse.

Image source, MistyClipImage caption, The site can produce 25,000 clips per day

However, Grégory Carliez says he was inspired by another project he was working on.

He wanted to develop a welding mask that was split into two parts; to cover eyes, then mouth and nose, separately, as opposed to an all-in-one design, which fogged up.

Cleared for take off

Several pilots contacted Alex after the article about his business and thwarted pilot dream was published, to offer him help and encouragement.

One retired BA pilot wrote: "Don't give up on your dream. Things change hugely, especially in the airline business, which I was in for 33 years. You have the right attitude and I have no doubt that you'll be up in that flight deck one day!"

Image source, Alex WickensImage caption, Alex had long dreamed of being a pilot

A retired military pilot also offered him free mentoring, "paying forward the help I have received over my career".

Although Alex had raised enough money to go to flight school, thanks to his business, he still had some doubts about the future of aviation, and whether it would be a viable, long-term career.

As the situation with Covid improved in the UK in the latter half of 2021, he decided to take the plunge.

He started at Flight Academy in Gatwick in September.

"I'd resigned myself to the fact that my planned career had been snatched away, Covid had slammed the door on my face," recalls Alex.

"But after a rollercoaster year of emotions, everything has fallen into place and it feels absolutely amazing! My life is back on track."

He thinks being a pilot can be his long-term career.

Image source, Alex WickensImage caption, Alex Wickens trains at Gatwick in £13m simulators

"As long as aircraft remain the safest and quickest way of travelling across the world, I believe there will always be a demand for flying."

While learning to fly, he outsourced the running of his MistyClip company to a third party. But he still keeps a keen eye on sales. In fact, his Shopify app makes a cash register noise on his phone, to alert him whenever a sale goes through, he admits.

The clips are now being provided to corporate customers, as well as the NHS.

The daily average is 20 orders a day. But he says they can work out the exact time the government makes an announcement on face masks, by spikes in sales.

They went up by 350% on 27 November, for example, after rules on mandatory face masks in shops and public transport were reintroduced in England.

The whole experience of handling the pressure of a rapidly growing business will make him a better pilot, he believes – as soon as he is cleared for take-off.

For more entrepreneurship stories you can follow Dougal on Twitter: @dougalshawbbc

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