James Roberts, a 23-year old product design student from Loughborough University, has designed a simple, low-cost inflatable incubator to help reduce mortality rates in premature babies across the developing world.
Today, he receives the international James Dyson Award for his invention, beating competition from Japan’s QOLO, which allows wheelchair-bound users to stand up, Suncayr, a Canadian colour-changing marker pen that tells users when to reapply their sunscreen, and smart injury detection suit BRUISE, designed by fellow Brit Dan Garrett.
More than one in 10 babies around the globe are born prematurely, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. According to the World Health Organisation, 75pc of deaths resulting from premature birth could be avoided if basic incubation technology was available.
“I had the idea when I was watching TV in my student flat and a programme came on about premature babies dying in Syria due to a lack of incubation,” Roberts told The Telegraph. “I couldn’t understand why this problem still existed today, so I decided to invent a product myself.”
His invention, MOM, is an inflatable incubator that provides a stable heat environment, humidification and jaundice lighting. It has been designed for deployment in the developing world and in disaster areas or refugee camps, costing just £250 to manufacture, test and transport to the desired location. The design provides the same performance as a £30,000 modern incubation system.
“It compresses down very small, so it’s cheap to transport,” said Roberts. “Electricity is not always constant in the developing world, so my design can be plugged into a car battery. When the power goes out, the battery kicks in, like a laptop.”
The battery can last up to 24 hours on a single charge, and an alarm sounds if the temperature of the incubator changes. “But because it’s inflatable, it has a very stable inside temperature,” said Roberts. “It’s like the difference between single and double glazing.”
James Dyson said of Roberts’ invention: “It shows the impact design engineering can have on people’s lives. The western world takes incubators for granted – we don’t think about how their inefficient design makes them unusable in developing countries and disaster zones. By bravely challenging convention, James has created something that could save thousands of lives.”
Roberts, who had to sell his car to fund the first prototype, will receive £30,000 from Dyson to commercialise his product and test his prototypes in the field. He has already received interest from a number of medical companies that are keen to explore his invention.