A close up of a neonatal incubator, showing two portholes and a control panel bearing the MoM incubator logo

Graduate inventor of incubator saving babies' lives in Ukraine wins The Princess Royal Silver Medal

Loughborough graduate James Roberts, the inventor of a new neonatal incubator designed, developed and manufactured in Britain that has helped babies thrive in NHS hospitals and across war-torn Ukraine, will be presented with The Princess Royal Silver Medal, one of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s most prestigious individual awards.

The Princess Royal Silver Medal celebrates an outstanding personal contribution made to UK engineering by an early to mid-career engineer resulting in market exploitation. Roberts will be presented with the award at the Academy Awards Dinner in London on Thursday 13 July by HRH The Princess Royal, who is a Royal Fellow of the Academy.

One in 10 babies born around the world is premature, and every 40 seconds one of those babies dies. While three-quarters of these deaths are preventable with appropriate interventions, including contact with consistent warmth, many parents and clinicians have no access to incubators, which tend to be expensive and hard to maintain. 

In his final year at Loughborough University studying product design, James set out to help premature babies by designing a more compact, simple and cost-effective alternative to conventional incubators to provide flexibility to caring for newborns. The mOm Essential Incubator is built to work in challenging environments and provides a stable heated environment even if access to electricity is unreliable thanks to a built-in battery. Its clever inflatable design and lighter weight of 20 kilograms make this incubator a more flexible option for neonatal care in the UK.

It is being used in a series of pilots across four NHS hospitals to ease the need for short-term admission to special care and to help maintain the core temperature of babies being moved around hospital sites. The system allows parents to stay closer to their baby and gives more flexibility in how babies are cared for across the hospital.

The mOm Essential Incubator can also be used in emerging economies and war zones. A total of 75 incubators have been sent to Ukraine, where they are being used to keep babies warm in hospitals and underground bomb shelters transformed into make-shift neonatal wards. For every 1°C a child loses when they are premature, their chance of mortality increases by 28%, making these incubators invaluable in cold and draughty places. The company estimates that between 1,500 and 2,000 babies have been positively impacted by its incubators and Ukraine’s Ministry of Health has asked for another 100, and is actively looking for funders to help meet the need.

 Roberts’ prototype caught the attention of the James Dyson Foundation, which in 2014 awarded him the global James Dyson Award for innovation. Since then, mOm Incubators has been granted regulatory approval for the mOm Essential Incubator and James has won multiple awards. While the company considers incubators to be at the heart of NICU, it intends to add products to its incubator and to supply them globally.

 "Feedback from Ukrainian clinicians in the front line of perinatal care is excellent and James Roberts and his team have worked tirelessly to try and meet the demand,” said Neil MacLachlan

MBE FRCOG, retired consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology. “To create a more affordable neonatal incubator that can potentially help so many premature babies survive is a fantastic achievement."

James Roberts said: “I was taken aback but thrilled to win The Princess Royal Silver Medal. Demis Hassabis, CEO and Cofounder of DeepMind won a Silver Medal in 2016 and to be in his company as a recipient, as well as so many other inspiring people, is strange but amazing. I’m hugely grateful for this award and humbled by it too.”

Professor Dan Parsons, Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Innovation at Loughborough, commented: “The Princess Royal Silver Medal is further recognition of James’ outstanding achievements as an engineer at the forefront of design innovation. At the time of his degree show it was clear he had developed something that one day would save lives. We are incredibly proud of James and wish him continued success for the future.”