Inflatable incubator nearer market after prize win


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  • MOM incubator designed for remote locations such as refugee camps
  • It is cheap, easy to move and simple to operate
  • Award includes cash prize and specialist mentoring

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Last week, the 23-year-old inventor of a cheap, inflatable incubator that could save premature babies in remote locations won a prize that boosts the chances of the device reaching market.

Briton James Roberts designed the incubator during his engineering degree to assist Syrian refugees. He has since won two awards and associated cash prizes that will help him turn his prototype into a commercial product by 2018. The MOM incubator will cost just a fraction of the usual £30,000 (US$46,000) price tag for conventional devices, according to the product’s website.

The incubator is designed to be easy to carry and operate in isolated locations such as refugee camps and hospitals in developing countries. “Conventional incubators are incredibly cumbersome and difficult to transport and also difficult to use,” Roberts says, while his device is light and can be packed away when not in use. The incubator can also be powered from different electricity sources; for example, it can run on a car battery for 24 hours, he says.

Other cheap incubators already exist. Healthcare firm GE makes the Lullaby Warmer, although this is bulky. Another option is the sleeping bag-like Embrace Warmer, manufactured by a US non-profit organisation. But Roberts says his design is superior because it provides an enclosed, warmed microenvironment, which helps prevent infection.

Ease of transport is the MOM incubator’s most important feature, says Ben Fleishman, who manages student programmes at biomedical engineering education NGO Engineering World Health in developing countries including Rwanda. “However, it doesn’t seem very durable and may break down quickly under the stresses of a developing-world environment,” he warns.

Zaher Haidar, a paediatrician at Chtoura Hospital in Lebanon who cares for the children of Syrian refugees, says that having such incubators would give a “second chance of life to hundreds”. That includes both premature babies and full-term babies with a low birth weight because of the deprivation their mothers faced. The need is so great that “sometimes I’ve had to put two babies in the incubator at the same time,” he says.

In recognition of Roberts’ idea, the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering last week named him Britain’s most promising young tech entrepreneur for 2015 and will give him £15,000 (US$23,000) and specialist mentoring. Last year, Roberts won the US$45,000 James Dyson Award, which recognises university engineering and design projects.

Roberts is raising more money to continue developing the product and complete the complicated approval procedure for medical devices. He says he hopes to start selling the incubator in 2018.