PROVO -- Over the summer, Brigham Young University student Kurt Workman and his friend Tanor Hodges started hatching ideas to save lives. Hodges, a University of Utah student who works at his school's hospital, had noticed that medical facilities use wired devices -- called pulse oximeters -- to measure heart rates and the amount of oxygen in the blood. Soon, the two men realized they could make those wired devices wireless.
Months later, that idea has evolved into the Owlet Baby Monitor, a pulse oximeter meant for home use and designed to alert parents if their infant stops breathing. The device, which Workman described as a "smart sock," fits over the foot of a baby and emits a signal if that baby stops breathing. The signal is picked up by an electronic device in the home, which then alerts parents by sounding an alarm on a computer or smart phone.
"You can get it on an app," Workman added.
Workman and his team believe the device will help cut down on sudden infant death syndrome, among other things. According to Hodges's team member and fellow BYU student Jacob Colvin, SIDS kills roughly 2,500 infants each year.
The real evolution of the idea began earlier this year. Workman said initially he envisioned creating a device for use in hospitals, but after learning that it would be too costly and too difficult to implement he and Hodges switched their focus to creating a home device. Workman also cited the death of his cousin from SIDS as inspiration.
Eventually Workman and Hodges took the idea to other BYU students participating in the Crocker Innovation Fellowship, a student program meant to germinate collaboration and new ideas. Workman said the Crocker fellowship was a key to the concept's success.
After hearing the pitch, Colvin eventually signed up along with Wyatt Felt, Anna Hawes and Jason Dearden. The initial stages of development also involved presenting the device to more than 100 mothers, all of whom praised it.
"The overwhelming response we got from moms was, 'Yes, we would love something like this,' " Workman said.
By mid-fall, the team's work was already paying off. Workman said this fall the device won the founder's favorite and crowd favorite awards at the Miller New Venture Challenge, as well as the first place and the crowd favorite awards in the BYU Student Innovator of the Year competition.
BYU engineering professor Justin Zsiros served as the faculty adviser at the latter competition and praised the team's work. He explained that the competition began with 39 teams and was judged by business and corporate leaders. The Owlet Baby Monitor succeeded, he said, because it used innovation to fill a niche.
"They're addressing a very significant need in the market," Zsiros said. "There's also a limited amount of risk. They're taking existing technology and modifying it slightly."
According to Colvin, the Owlet Baby Monitor is still being refined. He speculated that it could reach the market within a year, though the team still needs to refine its physical form. The device also will undergo extensive testing to ensure it's safe, though Workman stressed that the signals it transmits are so low powered that he doesn't expect any issues.
Colvin also said that several of the students involved in the project are forming a business to make the prototype of an actual product. He envisions it selling for between $75 and $150, or roughly the same price as a high-end baby monitor. And as the only parent on the team, he said he would definitely use his own product.
"You check on your kids I don't even know how many times a night to see if they're OK, to see if they're still breathing," Colvin said.
Among other things, the team still has to finalize patents and more testing. But when the Owlet Baby Monitor does finally reach homes, Colvin expects it to succeed because it'll do something very important.
"It hopefully could save a child's life somewhere," he said.