Do you know how much an incubator costs? Probably not, if you live in the developed world (and aren't a doctor). They can cost as much as $US45,000, a price inconceivable for most hospitals or midwives in poor parts of the world. "The western world takes incubators for granted," says James Dyson, who revealed his foundation's 2014 Dyson Award winner tonight.
"We don't think about how their inefficient design makes them unusable in developing countries and disaster zones," says Dyson, who you'll know from his vacuum cleaners and hand-dryers but who also runs the Dyson Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes young inventors through programs like its annual Dyson Award.
This year's winner was spurred by startling statistics about birth in the developing world: According to WHO, 15 million babies are born preterm every year, and one million of those die from complications from being born premature -- often from causes like hypothermia. In Uganda, for example, 85 per cent of hospitalized babies had hypothermia. In refugee camps alone, 275,00 infants die due to lack of sufficient incubation every year.
In response, 23-year-old British student named James Roberts designed MUM: An inflatable incubator designed to pack flat and small. Its ends are hard plastic, which pull out, accordion-style, to reveal a plastic bed where the baby lies. It's designed to function in areas that might not have consistent power, and can pull electricity from alternative sources like car batteries.
All in all, it costs $US400. Roberts sold his car to build his first functional prototype -- and will now have a starter budget of $US45,000 to take the project further (his university, meanwhile, will net $US15,000 thanks to his win).
Roberts' incubator is far from the only inexpensive device aimed at improving infant health in the developing world. For example as Co.Exist pointed out back in August there's Embrace, an award-winning incubator designed by a team of Stanford students that costs only $US25 to make and is also targeted at mothers in the developing world. At first glance, then, it seems a little odd that the Dyson Foundation would pick another inexpensive incubator to fund, considering that Embrace is already up and operating.
It may have something to do with the fact that Embrace is an extreme take on the incubator, essentially an advanced infant sleeping bag that was engineered to be as affordable as possible for obvious reasons. MUM is aimed as a slightly different use case -- not necessarily mothers themselves but midwives and hospitals that might not be able to afford $US45,000 incubators. It not only keeps infants warm, it also includes digital heating controls and humidity controls, as well as special lights for fighting jaundice.
"Its use needn't be limited to developing world scenarios" either, as pediatrician and neonatologist Dr Bernie Marden says in a statement about the design. "I could see it being used in the UK to support community midwifery units, or following home births." There were plenty of other great ideas in the running this year. But considering that millions of kids stand to benefit from a technology like this, it's tough to argue that any of them could have the reach that this one will. Check out some of the other finalists here.