Syrian refugees inspire a life-saving device by a British student


Life as a Syrian refugee began early for one tiny girl.

Away from the war, but not out of danger, premature babies cling to life, fortunate to have reached a Lebanese hospital with incubators -- thousands more do not.

CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata got an inside look at a British student's remarkable invention that could help save a generation of babies in war-ravaged Syria.

Design student James Roberts just happened to catch a documentary about the plight of Syria's youngest victims and the heroic work of British-Syrian doctor Rola Hallam.

"A five minute segment of this program was showing how many premature births there were just because of the stresses of war, and how many of them were dying," Roberts said. "They are essentially losing a generation, so I thought, there's got to be a better way."

And he may just come up with it -- an affordable, portable incubator.

"This consists of a heater with some computer fans, a humidifier, an exhaust fan for bringing oxygen over the child and a phototherapy unit all in one," Roberts said.

The 23-year-old just happened to be wracking his brains to come up with a final university project when he saw that program.

"When the first light bulb went off and then I started researching and seeing just how big of a problem it is throughout the entire world," he said.

The World Health Organization estimates that 15 million babies are born premature every year and preterm complications were to blame for nearly one million deaths last year.

James starting pulling all-nighters, sometimes crashing and burning.

"I blew up my housemates hair dryer as well. She didn't know about that," Roberts said.

Finally, his prototype was born. Incubators cost close to $50,000. His is under $400.

But here's the real magic -- because it's inflatable, it folds into the size of a briefcase and it can run off a car battery if needed.

He got more than an "A" for his project. He also won the prestigious James Dyson award, $50,000 in startup money and all the publicity that comes with it.

And then Roberts met with the woman who inspired his creation, Dr. Rola Hallam.

"I had tears in my eyes when I got the email about him doing the incubator. What a phenomenal person," Hallam said. "I think it's a very, very special person who sees this despair and sees these problems and is not only moved, because it's easy to be moved with sympathy or empathy, but to take it to that essential next step of actually taking action about something, about an injustice that you see."

Getting his incubator from the workbench to the war zone will take time and money, but he's already thinking about success in the future.

"In 10 years time meeting the child I maybe helped out when he was very young would be incredible, would be amazing actually," Roberts said.

Taking any invention to market is based on simple supply and demand.

Supply may be two years off, but there's already plenty of demand.