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."
Thirty-nine teams competed in this year's Student Innovator of the Year competition, according to Zsiros, which was sponsored by the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology and Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at BYU.
Seven teams were chosen in the preliminary round — a fair-like event with boards and prototypes from every team to share their products.
In the final round, the seven groups produced a short presentation of their product and business plan.
"The purpose (of the competition) is to provide resources to students who have an idea for a new product, whether it's a physical product or we do websites as well," Zsiros said. All applicants are screened and then given $400 to create a prototype for the competition.
"I think they've done a good job to create a network of mentors that can help, and giving cash to help develop something and to think outside the box," said Tyler Slater, a member of one of the teams to tie for third place, of the competition. "We've definitely benefited from some of the contacts we've gotten from the Rollins Center and the Business School."
Slater's team has created Intuiplan, a paperless management tool for businesses to use for notifications, procedures and organizations that would normally be done on paper. The team tied for third place and won a $2,000 cash prize.
Ever since Jung Lee moved to the U.S. from Korea he wondered why Americans didn't use intercom systems; with the Student Innovator competition he was finally able to pull together a idea he had to fix this.
"It's a doorbell that has a built-in camera, speaker and microphone and is connected with Wi-Fi so you can use smart-phone technology and answer the door anywhere," Lee said. "It's great the school provides this opportunity. ... It was really great because we were able to meet with other people and work with other people and get positive feedback about our product to help solve the problems that we faced.
"I don't think my idea was extraordinary or great. ... I would tell people who have a good idea — they have to look out and talk to as many people as possible and use their talent ... just don't give up."
Mandy Morgan is an enterprise intern for the Deseret News, reporting on values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying Journalism and Political Science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.
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