Local participant in JHU Innovation Lab wins $25k prize


— Shantell Roberts was awarded $25,000 from Johns Hopkins University Innovation Labs to advance her concept to keep babies safe. Roberts’ Portable Alternative Crib won the accolades of her peers and will soon be on its way into homes in Baltimore and surrounding counties.

Roberts’ Portable Alternative Crib is based on a “baby box” concept, which originated in Finland in the 1930s. Today, it is a small, portable box issued by the government filled with newborn baby items and a mattress on the bottom to ensure each child in Finland gets an equal start. The Baby Box has become a rite of passage in Finnish culture. It is used as a crib for traveling mothers or for who don’t own one.

“I in no way imagined that I would have been selected as the ultimate winner. It’s still settling in,” said Roberts.

In fact, Roberts had already settled on finding a way to distribute her Portable Alternative Crib to mothers across Baltimore when she entered the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab, six months ago. She had the passion and the drive to save the lives of babies in Baltimore and beyond, but she just needed the opportunity.

In 2011, while Roberts was working at Morgan State University’s Student Affairs Office nurturing the dreams of college students, she suffered a tragic loss. Her one-year-old daughter Tyler died from pneumonia. Although devastated, Roberts lived through the experience with the resolve to do what she could to ensure other mothers never go through the experience of losing an infant suddenly.

Roberts turned grief into determination and joined the Board of the Center for Infant Child Loss. But Roberts was not done yet. A friend saw a listing for a job that she thought was perfect for Roberts with the B’more for Babies Healthy Babies Initiative. Roberts successfully interviewed and joined the staff of B’more for Healthy Babies as the Safe Sleep coordinator. Once again, Roberts wasn’t done yet.

Roberts attended a boot camp sponsored by the Social Innovation Lab in September 2016. She thought about the Baby Box presentation and decided to submit her application to the Hopkins Social Innovation Lab based on the Finnish box for babies that now captivated her. So, she decided to take a shot. Roberts was invited back to give a presentation and was ultimately invited to transform her vision of ending Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by distributing Baby Boxes to every mother who needed one. For the next six months, Roberts worked closely with a cohort of nine other social entrepreneurs from Hopkins and the Baltimore area and Lab Director, Darius Graham.

“Shantell’s work [with] the Portable Alternative Crib is inspiring, and a great example of what we strive to do at the Social Innovation Lab— identify passionate people with personal and professional experience with a pressing social issue, and help them transform that passion and experience into a viable, impactful venture,” Graham said.

After conducting interviews with individuals and participating in focus groups, Roberts decided to change the name of the Baby Box to the Portable Alternative Crib and received the feedback and resources she needed from the Innovation Lab to start “Touching Young Lives,” the not-for profit organization that will benefit from sales of the Portable Alternative Crib. Roberts still wasn’t done yet.

“The structure and accountability he (Darius Graham) gave me in the program was like no other. I had more structure in this program that I had in college,” Roberts said laughing. “There are opportunities that I am almost sure I wouldn’t have been afforded if I had not been part of the social innovation lab and that Darius prepared me to participate in.”

One of the many opportunities Roberts recalled was attending the Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference, which was held at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut in April.

“I went to Yale to talk about my Portable Alternative Crib and to talk about safe sleep in Baltimore City,” Roberts said, crediting the Social Innovation Lab for preparing and positioning her to take full advantage of the experience.

The unexpected gift Roberts received from the Hopkins Social Innovation Lab was the overwhelming affirmation of her peers. At this year’s closing ceremony, Roberts discovered that she won the Social Innovation Lab’s first ever peer-based prize of $25,000 to start her venture. Roberts’ advice to other social entrepreneurs is to “start by starting.”

“Do something every single day to get you one step closer to achieving your dream. Volunteer, look-up opportunities, go to events, send e-mails, ask questions. Just start by starting!” Roberts isn’t done yet. She is busy looking for an institution or an interested “angel” to make the Portable Alternative Crib available on a large scale here in Baltimore.

The Social Innovation Lab is a six-month program, which offers comprehensive support for individuals and teams in developing and scaling social enterprises culminating in a Pitch Day where participants may showcase their projects and rally community support. Since 2011, the lab has supported 62 ventures, raised more than $13 million and hired more than 269 employees.