Incubation innovation: saving babies’ lives

It’s been a rollercoaster few months for James Roberts. Since designing the world’s first inflatable incubator, his invention has gone on to win the James Dyson Award, the Glendenbrook Prize, and most recently the Royal Academy of Engineering’s JC Gammon Award. He’s also made numerous TV appearances, explaining how he came up with the idea for the incubator, and discussing the impact the product could have on millions of lives.


James’s inflatable MOM Incubator folds up to the size of a briefcase, and is planned to cost just a few hundred pounds
James’s inflatable MOM Incubator folds up to the size of a briefcase, and is planned to cost just a few hundred pounds

During his final year studying product design at Loughborough University, James watched a Panorama documentary highlighting the increased number of premature births in Syria due to the war. Believing there must be something he could do to improve the situation, he set about researching the technology behind incubators, exploring possibilities for improving their design.

Incubators are a vital tool for reducing mortality rates among premature babies, but traditional models are generally bulky and expensive, costing as much as £30,000. James’s inflatable MOM incubator folds up to the size of a briefcase, and is planned to cost just a few hundred pounds. With one in ten babies born premature, and 75 per cent of premature deaths believed to be preventable with incubation, the technology has the potential to be genuinely revolutionary, particularly in the developing world. But when James came up with the idea, he was by no means an expert. 

“I knew nothing,” James tells The Student Engineer. “Absolutely zip. I just thought that it would be an interesting problem to try and solve. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.”

James's invention has won the James Dyson Award, the Glendenbrook Prize, and most recently the Royal Academy of Engineering’s JC Gammon Award.
James’s invention has won the James Dyson Award, the Glendenbrook Prize, and most recently the Royal Academy of Engineering’s JC Gammon Award.

He set about acquiring as much knowledge as he could, conducting research online about the developing world and what a child needs to survive. He also visited hospitals to see incubators in action, and spoke to midwives and people working in the field in refugee camps about some of the challenges they faced. According to James, his lecturer and mentor Dr Guy Bingham was a pivotal point of support in the early days of development.

“He helped me out so much,” James says. “[He] Sat down with me for an hour every week, suggested what to do… he was one of the main helps throughout this.”

Early iterations of the incubator sought to replicate the functionality of traditional models, with controls for temperature, humidity, and lighting therapy to treat jaundice. However, the current version that James is developing is a more simple design, focusing solely on providing a stable heating environment.

Incubators are a vital tool for reducing mortality rates among premature babies, but traditional models are generally bulky and expensive, costing as much as £30,000.
Incubators are a vital tool for reducing mortality rates among premature babies, but traditional models are generally bulky and expensive, costing as much as £30,000.

“The reason [incubators] are expensive is because they’re a complicated piece of kit,’” he explains. “We’re trying to take it into a completely new area, making the simplest, most efficient one we possibly can…It’s not designed to save every child out there. It’s not going to. But what it can do is help those who are a lot simpler to save.”

While plans for more advanced models are still in place for the future, James says the leaner model is a response to the strict regulatory environment that all biomedical devices are subjected to. By reducing the complication of the device, he hopes to get the product to market within the next two and half years. In the meantime, he will continue to receive mentoring and support via the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub, as he guides his invention through the various stages of certification. 

“It’s med-tech and it takes a while,” he says, “that’s just how it is.”