Got spare car parts? Let’s save some babies

Annually, four million babies die within a month of their birth. 1.8 million of these die from a lack of consistent heat before they gain body fat and are able to regulate their own body temperature—but if they spent just one week in an incubator, they would survive. Most of these babies are born into developing countries, and so they can’t afford conventional incubators, which cost approximately US$30,000 per unit and are expensive to run. Units are donated to them, but 98% stop functioning within five years, because when something small goes wrong and one breaks down, no one has the parts or the knowledge to fix it again. Instead of simply attempting to build a durable, low cost incubator, a team at Design That Matters took a more lateral approached and asked: “If incubators aren’t easily maintained in third world countries, then what equipment is?” The answer: cars. Mechanics can be found in most towns, and car parts are relatively cheap and are shipped even to developing communities—so the designers set out to build an incubator entirely out of car parts. Headlights were used for a heating element, dashboard fans for heat circulation, indicators and door chimes for alarms, engine intake-filters for removing dust, bugs and pathogens, and motorbike batteries for back-up power. The idea is, anyone who can fix a car can now fix this “NeoNurture” incubator. The company is still figuring out how to mass-produce their invention, because each component can’t be too specific to a model—but this ingenious innovation has a lot of potential.

(Image Credit: Design That Matters)

Taking innovation to the front-line of infant healthcare

Here are some shocking figures I came across recently.  20 million low-birth-weight and premature babies are born each year across the globe.  Of them, 450 die every hour.  And one of the biggest killers is hypothermia – these babies simply cannot control their body temperature.

In the developed world we take it for granted that we have access to great acute-care medicine.  In an emergency, most of us are pretty close to a hospital or at least have access to transportation that could get us there reasonably quickly.  But for many in the developing world their rural location means access to a hospital is difficult if not impossible. 

Even for those lucky enough to be able to access a hospital, there’s no guarantee that there will be a working infant incubator available.  Many of these machines have been donated by western benefactors, but it transpires that many of these now lie unused – it can cost up to $40k a year to keep one of these sophisticated machines properly maintained. That’s assuming they were switched on in the first place – some of these units have manuals in other languages, and the hospitals simply don’t know how to use them.

With such a clear problem a number of groups have set about trying to do something about the issue.  The first solution I came across is a great demonstration of thinking differently about a problem.  The Massachusetts team at Design That Matters looked at the kinds of environment in these developing countries and came up with NeoNurture.

They realised that whilst developing countries might not be best equipped to maintain and fix highly complex medical equipment, what they could do was run cars.  Oddly, people seem able to keep their cars running in the most remote corners of the globe; partly through the mechanical simplicity of many of these vehicles, partly through ingenuity – and all miles away from their nearest main-dealer garage! 

So Design That Matters built a $1,000 incubator that capitalised on that capability.  The incubator gets its heat from a pair of car headlamps.  If the temperature varies too much then health staff are notified by a car alarm.  And when power is lost to the unit, or the whole thing needs to be transported, then a 12v car battery does the job.

If parts are needed many of them are standardised and the car industry has much more sophisticated and wide-reaching distribution channels than your average medical-equipment company. 

As one smart-ar*e journalist put it – “… this brings the whole concept of the race-car bred to the next level…

But if you can’t make it to the hospital, the NeoNurture isn’t going to help.  A team from Harvard looked at the same problem and, working with General Electric came up with Embrace – a sort of sleeping-bag warmer for premature babies.

The Embrace product uses phase-change material (the gel packs you’ve probably seen in camping and skiing shops which can be used to warm your hands up on a cold day) to keep the insulated cocoon warm for up to four hours.  Since the packs are ‘recharged’ simply by boiling them in water you don’t need to be near an electrical outlet to use the warmer.  The phase-change packs have the added advantage that if the baby gets too warm they actually stop radiating heat and start recharging themselves.

It’s a beautiful design which the team are already adapting further.  They reckon they have already saved 150,000 lives, and aim to reduce infant mortality by 15% by 2013.  Pretty inspiring stuff for a $80 product.

NeoNurture: An Incubator from a 4Runner

Developing countries are the perfect platform for designers to go in and have a real impact in the world. There are fewer boundaries to their creative input. Anything they do can help save the world. Designers, or inventors, from Design that Matters did what no one had tried to do before: they built an incubator from recycled car parts that could prevent millions of newborn deaths in developing countries.


  1. The main cause of newborn deaths are due to infections, preterm birth and asphyxiation. These are all treatable with the right equipment and training. The equipment that is used in these cases is an incubator. However, these are not cheap and readily available at hospitals or clinics in the developing world.
  2. Every rural clinic has a pile of broken donated medical equipment that people don’t know what to do with. They don’t know how to repair it or reuse it.

How could they develop an incubator that was cheap and reliable only using resources that already existed in these countries?

 Their main concern was to have a low cost incubator – around $1000 or 3% of what the current top of the line costs. They wanted the equipment to be manufactured locally, whit parts that were available locally and that could be replaces or repaired by local workers. Another important consideration was that the design had to target the local conditions: temperature and power supply as their main concerns.

 They started with intense fieldwork in the US, in a context where money is no object. They wanted to learn what were the standards of care. This was followed by similar fieldwork, interviews and observations in their target markets: India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.

How did the get to cars?

By considering “what gets fixed?” they arrived the fact that the car industry is one of the few in which their technology is reliably repaired in communities, even in rural ones. If there was someone in the town that had some knowledge of cars, they would be able to repair the incubator if something needed some work. The automotive industry also has amazing distribution channels, which makes it possible for them to deliver parts to remote communities. This is something that the incubators manufacturers could take advantage of. 

Most specifically, the designers noticed that Toyota cars where everywhere in rural areas. At most towns, they found a mechanic that could perfectly service and repair all Toyotas. 


  • The heat for the unit is given off by a pair of car headlights.
  • The car air filter and fan provides climate control.
  • The car door alarm is used to alert when an emergency is in place.
  • A motorcycle battery and car cigarette lighter provide backup power during transport and power outages.

Four million babies die within their first month every year, with the majority of these in developing countries. A quarter of these can be attributed to premature birth. Donated incubators can cost up to $30,000 and typically last less than five years due to lack of training and parts for repair. 

Non-profit organisation Design That Matters developed the NeoNurture incubator in 2010, fabricated from old car and motorbike parts. A motor blower, battery, alarm and headlights are all installed to provide the warmth and circulation needed.

NeoNurture uses accessible parts while also meeting the needs of the infant, health care workers, and those who maintain and clean the device. It is an incubator that anyone — whether living in the richest country or the poorest — will be comfortable using.