Jaren Wilkey, BYU
A sock-like device for newborns that monitors infants' breathing as they sleep and notifies parents will soon be on shelves everywhere if BYU student inventors have their way.
A team of six students won first place at Brigham Young University's third annual campus-wide Student Innovator of the Year competition. The student team also won the crowd favorite award and a total of $6,000 in prize money for their invention of the Owlet Baby Monitor.
The Owlet fits on an infant's foot like a sock and uses pulse oximetry — a non-invasive method of measuring the saturation of hemoglobin in the blood — to monitor the heart rate and blood-oxygen levels of babies as they sleep. It alerts parents of any change in heart rate or breathing via notification on a smart phone.
"What the students need to show is some engineering content to their idea. There needs to be a technical aspect to it," said Justin Zsiros, the competition's faculty adviser at BYU. "There also needs to be some business research done to make sure there's a market for their product. With the Owlet there's a huge market — it applies to any family with a young infant, so the potential for people to use it is huge."
Student Tanor Hodges, who currently works at the University of Utah Hospital, where he uses pulse oximeters, initially came up with the idea for the Owlet. He discussed it with Kurt Workman, a fellow student and engineering member of the team. Workman helped narrow down the idea to take-home pulse oximeters, specifically for small subjects — like infants.
"We decided to create something that could help give parents peace of mind while their baby sleeps," Hodges said. "If one mother was to come up to me and say, 'Hey, your product made a difference in my life and my child's life,' that would make all the work worth it, what we're doing."
One of the team's biggest goals when it came to the product's development was making the oximeter wireless for simpler use, Hodges said. Infants are often sent home before lungs, among other important things, are fully developed, and it takes the technology of pulse oximetry to monitor them once they're outside the hospital. However, pulse oximeters sent home in today's world are large, bulky pieces of equipment and are not easy to utilize at home, according to Hodges.
The alert technology will also have an aspect in which the Owlet can record heart rate and blood oxygen readings for a month so that parents and doctors can see what is going on with a baby and then help in the way it is most needed, Hodges said.
"We've talked with a lot of parents. We've talked with a lot of people with experience with babies who stop breathing in the night," he said, " ... We've gotten a lot of feedback from parents that say they will use it; it's just a little added security with their baby."
Another priority with the Owlet has been to make it as affordable as possible to any parents who want or need to use it, Hodges said. One area the Owlet creators aren't worried about? The technology behind the device. According to Zsiros, oximetry technology has already been proven and is being used in hospitals.
According to Workman, the group's progress up to now has been made possible by the Crocker Innovation Fellowship at BYU, which is sponsored by Gary and Ann Crocker. The team received a $2,500 fellowship as they participate in a year-long program to be mentored and get advice on innovation and entrepreneurship, and their sponsorship facilitation with the product has helped moved it along, Workman says.
"It's not just another toy that is nice to have — it's something I could easily see becoming easy to use. ... It has the potential to save infants' lives," Zsiros said. "This combination puts them in a position to be really successful. I am hoping with a little bit of resources and support from us they can go on and be really successful."
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