Student Inventor’s Cheap, Portable Baby Incubator Wins Dyson Award

James Dyson congratulates James Roberts over the latter's invention, a cheap and compact incubator for babies born prematurely. James Dyson Foundation

An innovative way to take care of premature babies in places with inadequate medical care has won a young inventor $45,000 and recognition from the James Dyson Foundation. The Dyson Award, given yearly to young designers looking to solve serious problems, went this year to James Roberts and his project, "Mom."

Roberts was looking specifically at the problem of children born in refugee camps. Poor living conditions and a lack of medical facilities mean a great number of children are born in camps every year — 150,000, by Roberts' estimate, of which 27,500 will die from lack of incubation.

The problem, apart from the wars creating such inhumane circumstances, is that incubators are bulky and expensive — tens of thousands of dollars, and big enough they'd have to be trucked out to camps.

"The Western world takes incubators for granted," said James Dyson, founder of the foundation and company that bear his name, in a news release. "We don't think about how their inefficient design makes them unusable in developing countries and disaster zones."

The mOm incubator inflates to a size big enough for a newborn, and provides heat and humidity control. mOm

To solve this, Roberts created an incubator that's about the size of a briefcase. An inflatable chamber allows it to expand into a space comfortable for a newborn to occupy, and the heat and humidity of the interior can be controlled to the same level of precision as a commercial incubator. It must be plugged in, but can run for 24 hours on a built-in battery in case of outages or a sudden need to move — not uncommon in refugee camps. There's even an optional unit for treating jaundice, another common malady among babies born prematurely.

Best of all, it should cost only about $400, making it practical to deploy with care packages or with cash-strapped volunteer medical teams. Since it meets U.K. regulations, it could even be used there for home care or underfunded clinics.

Roberts will receive £30,000 (about $45,000) to further tune Mom and look into manufacturing it. The financial reward is surely a boon for the 23-year-old recent graduate of Loughborough University in the UK, who noted in the release: "I had to sell my car to fund my first prototype!"

The runners-up for the prize are no less interesting. (They each receive £5000, or about $8,000).

Runner-up projects for the Dyson Award: Bruise (top left), Qolo (top right), Suncayr (bottom). James Dyson Foundation

Qolo is a wheelchair that allows a person using it to elevate to a standing posture, from a team at Japan's University of Tsukuba. This is invaluable for many things: everyday face-to-face conversation, using tools or kiosks made for those with the use of their legs, or simply gazing out a window. It's also powered, allowing the person to navigate while in a standing position.

Bruise is also aimed at those who have lost the use of their limbs — specifically those who play sports and are at risk of seriously injuring parts of their body they can no longer feel. A pressure-sensitive film fits into pockets on custom athletic garments, and when struck or twisted with sufficient force, it changes color, indicating a possible injury. The Bruise team is also British, from the Royal Academy of Art.

Lastly, Suncayr from Canada's University of Waterloo, is a marker filled with UV-sensitive ink that helps people avoid sunburns and (hopefully) skin cancer. Draw a mark or design on yourself with the Suncayr pen, apply sunscreen over that, and when the mark changes color, you'll know UV rays are striking it and it's time to put more on or get inside.

You can browse the many other competing projects at the Dyson Award website.