Stanford Students Invent A Respirator Mask To Save Babies

A group of product designers have developed a major innovation in pediatric medicine.

Neonatal care is tricky business. When a baby is sick, adult treatments can do more harm than good. For example, when an adult is in respiratory distress, a respirator can help them breathe. But used on a sick child, a mechanical respirator can damage an already-fragile organ by forcing too much air into the lungs.


Instead, a gentler alternative therapy called Bubble CPAP is often used in neonatal care units, delivering constant positive air pressure to tiny, failing lungs via a pronged nasal mask. It’s very common in developing countries, where CPAP is often used on older children suffering from life-threatening respiratory illnesses, too. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under five worldwide, and CPAP is part of most treatments. Therein lies the dilemma: The plastic nasal mechanism doesn’t fit children of all ages. And when the cup doesn’t fit, oxygen–a precious commodity in the developing world–is wasted. Worse, it can compromise the effectiveness of the therapy, slowing the recovery process.

Alejandro Palandjoglou was a student at Stanford’s design school when he first learned about Bubble CPAP. As part of a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, the Argentinian designer was invited to a rural Bangladeshi hospital to study the problem. Alongside his teammates David Janka, Neil Mehta, and Elizabeth Zambricki, Palandjoglou spent several weeks observing and talking with doctors about the issue, while the group ideated and sketched concepts for an improved nasal piece.

Their idea was to develop a flexible cup that could be adjusted via elastic straps, to fit faces of all ages. They christened the device AdaptAir. “Initially, I developed a large number of rough prototypes and had meetings with doctors to get their thoughts and reactions,” Palandjoglou tells Co.Design. “I’m a hands-on designer and love making prototypes in the shop.” Encouraged by reactions from the doctors, he headed home to finish the semester up at Stanford.

Back in California, the team tested the prototypes on infant simulators. They found that it had “a huge impact” in pediatric patients, improving the quality of the treatment across the board. So, using materials that could be easily sterilized to allow for repeat use, they stepped up the prototyping process. It began to look as though AdaptAir could have a life beyond the end of their semester. Then, a grant from entrepreneurial think-tank Social E Labs, and from Stanford Biodesign Global Exchange Program, made it possible for Palandjoglou to take the new prototypes back to Bangladesh, where another round of testing and feedback produced a more developed prototype. That was in August of 2011. “My latest design was shipped about four months ago,” he says, writing in late July. “[It’s] ready for mass production.”

Of course, changing any standard of care in medicine is a huge undertaking. Right now, Palandjoglou is in talks with companies interested in manufacturing AdaptAir, while eagerly awaiting the birth of his own first child. “As a designer,” he says of the two-year process, “this has been the most rewarding experience I have ever had.”

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.