This Student-Designed Device Helps Developing-World Babies Breathe More Easily

What happens when a newborn needs a ventilator and there isn’t one for miles around?

When newborn babies have trouble breathing, they’re often put on a type of ventilator called a CPAP, which stands for Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. In poor countries, these machines can be very simple: little more than a tube submerged in a tub of water.


Two students at Western Michigan University have come up with an ingenious way to improve on this–a device that offers various pressure points, instead of just one. They hope it could help more babies in the developing world once they’ve finished designing it.

The idea, called the Neovent, recently picked up first prize in the James Dyson Award, an international contest for young engineers and designers. The students received $3,500, which will go towards further testing, registering the intellectual property, and other needs of the company they’ve set up.

The machine builds on traditional CPAP equipment by adding a basket and a series of valves. The basket collects bubbles, causing it to rise, unsealing holes at various depths. When it reaches the top of a column, it falls down again, allowing the process to repeat itself. The effect is to allow dual-pressure, mimicking in-and-out breathing, so babies’ lungs are inflated and deflated.

“Basically, our device just adds on to a normal CPAP, so they can transform their basic setup into a more advanced treatment option based on the depth of the pipe in the water,” says Joseph Barnett, who’s in the final stages of a biomedical undergraduate degree.

Barnett and his colleague Stephen John got the idea from a contact at Respiratory Therapists Without Borders, which helps train specialists around the world. They now hope to take the prototype into full trials soon (it’s only been tested on a computer simulator so far).

“We’d like to be manufacturing and distributing this to hospitals that need this,” Barnett says. “Hopefully we’ll be on the ground next summer.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.