Kyle Poplin

A Solution is Born: Student’s inflatable incubator design wins James Dyson Award, offers answers for developing world

There’s a certain amount of randomness involved in inventing things, and that’s certainly the case with James Roberts’ inexpensive, inflatable incubator called MOM. It began in his industrial design course at Loughborough University in the UK, when his teacher told the class to design something, anything that solves a problem, and crystalized when Roberts saw a TV show about Syrian refugees. The result is an incubator that could be a game-changer in the developing world. Roberts says it can be manufactured and delivered for about $400 U.S. – compared to about $47,000 for a standard incubator – and it’s portable and doesn’t require electricity. Plus, it includes a phototherapy light to help treat jaundice.

According to the World Health Organization, 15 million babies are born preterm every year, resulting in about 1.1 milion deaths. In fact, premature birth is now the single largest cause of death among babies and young children. Most could survive, according to WHO, if proper care and equipment were available.

Much like Roberts, a team from Stanford University saw the need and developed Embrace, another low-cost, portable incubator desgined for use in the developing world. Roberts’ invention differs from Embrace, which looks and functions much like a sleeping bag, in several ways; primarily, MOM can shield babies from extensive physical contact, if needed, to reduce the risk of illnesses.

We asked Roberts via email to talk about the origin of his invention and where it might go from here.

Kyle Poplin: How does your incubator work?

James Roberts: It uses simple components put together in new ways. A simple Arduino (an open-source physical computing platform) is used to control everything, which includes the ceramic heaters for a stable heat environment, a humidifier for humidification and a phototherapy unit to treat jaundice in newborns.

KP: What makes MOM especially useful in the developing world?

JR: Apart from the cost saving of MOM compared to other incubators, the inflatable piece gives a lot of advantages. It acts as an insulator for the air inside which means it is easier to maintain a stable heat environment. It can be packed down into a very small space which saves on shipping costs. It also means that when not in use, instead of lying around it can be packaged away and placed to the side. Many developing world hospitals have very limited space and so anything that helps that is an advantage. It is very simple to use and can almost be plugged in and left. Many developing world nurses do not have the training to use normal incubators and so they simply get left and used as a storage device instead of incubating children.

KP: What inspired you and how did you come up with the idea?

JR: For my final year of university we were given a brief that is very similar to the James Dyson Award brief in that we must design something that solves a problem. I was given this brief and was lucky enough to be sitting in front of my TV at night in my student flat and a program about Syria was on. One segment of this program showed how many premature kids were being born because of the conditions and, subsequently, how many were dying because of the lack of incubators. They were “losing a generation” because of it. I thought there has to be a better way and tried to solve the problem.

KP: ?Did you get a lot of negative reactions when your were in the initial stages of your project?

JR: Yes I did. Some of the bigger companies and people who I was trying to get advice from told me not to do it as it was too hard and what did I know, as I hadn’t even finished university at that point. This almost pushed me on further as I wanted to try and prove them wrong.

?KP: The James Dyson Award ?comes with $45,000?. How will that money help further your mission?

JR: The money is incredible but I’m going to try and put all of it back into MOM. I need to really learn the laws in each of the regions and then build a prototype based on this that can be tested and hopefully get a few prototypes out to the developing world for final testing. After that, who knows?

KP: Compare the cost of your incubator to standard incubators. Can you make a sustainable business out of your invention?

JR: My Incubator is currently a lot cheaper than standard ones. I think I can still make a business out of it, though. I am thinking of differing versions for different situations, such as war zones, refugee camps, developing world hospitals, rural areas, which could all be slightly different. It will be hard but I would love to try. I know I am naive but so are a lot of people when they start out and I think that is what gives some of them the edge.

KP: ?What are some of the key lessons you’ve learned along the way?

JR: Not to listen to what everyone has to say about what you are doing and RESEARCH is key. Without the research in the initial stages of creating MOM I would have ended up with nothing. Prototyping is also very important as I failed a lot along the way, but I learnt from these failures and it made my project better.

KP: What are the key problems that you foresee in MOM’s immediate future?

JR: MOM’s future depends entirely on the testing phases as these can be very difficult to get through, especially for medical devices. I am going to need support to do this. If not, this project will not get off the ground which I think is very sad as it could potentially help a lot of people.

Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.

Health Care
business development, incubators, product design