College Student Sells Car to Invent Inflatable Baby Incubator

James Roberts won the 2014 James Dyson Award.

— -- A recent college graduate has turned a school assignment, originally funded by selling his car, into an award-winning invention with the potential to save lives.

James Roberts, 23, was named the International Winner of the James Dyson Award this week for inventing an inflatable baby incubator that could potentially be deployed in areas without medical resources.

Roberts, who now lives in south London, said initially the project started as an assignment to “design a product that solves a problem," but that he quickly became obsessed with making it work.

Roberts said once he started with the project, he spent 18-hour days working on it and sold his car to fund prototypes and his research.

“It wasn’t fun,” Roberts said. “Having no weekends and being a zombie.”

After nine months of work both developing the prototype and talking to aid agencies and midwives about the needs of prenatal infants, Roberts had a working machine: the MOM incubator.

Robert’s MOM incubator is designed for areas without regular access to medical care. It is collapsible and can be blown up manually. A computer can control the humidity and temperature so that premature infants are protected from cold or dry air.

The machine also has a phototherapy unit for jaundiced infants.

Roberts said he was looking for investors and partners when he entered the 2014 James Dyson Award contest, which gives up to 45,000 British pounds (about $71,000) for products that “have a significant and practical purpose, are commercially viable, and are designed with sustainability in mind.”

When Roberts found out he was a finalist, he said he was mostly excited to meet Dyson himself, a British inventor famous for his bagless vacuum cleaner.

“He stuck out his hand and said, ‘Well done, you’ve won,’” Roberts said. “I almost collapsed.”

Dyson said the invention had the potential to save thousands. The prize awarded Roberts' team with 45,000 pounds for additional prototyping and another 15,000 pounds (about $23,700) for Loughborough University.

“[Roberts'] invention shows the impact design engineering can have on people’s lives," James Dyson said in a statement. "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.”

While Roberts is still looking for investors, he hopes the Dyson award money will allow him to produce his incubator prototype on his own terms so it can reach a wide variety of people across the globe.

“My wildest dreams would be in 10 years [meeting someone] who was a kid,” he said, “and was in my incubator and survived.”