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John Lamb, Published January 11 2009

Man loves what Toyotas do for babies

"Cars were never really something I was totally interested in,” Tom Weis said last week from his Rockland, Maine, home.

But the Minnesota State University Moorhead alum has taken an interest in Toyota trucks. What he’s doing with them is getting people in the medical community revved up.

Weis and a team of fellow designers and engineers are turning “the best-built cars in the world” into life-saving incubators for the Third World.

Halogen headlights supply the heat, while a fan keeps air circulating. And a car alarm, hooked up to blinking tail lights, warns of trouble.

The group was hired by Design That Matters, a nonprofit based in Cambridge, Mass., that aims to improve quality of life in developing countries. That group was working with Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technologies to prevent the estimated 4 million newborn deaths annually due to pre-term birth, asphyxiation and infections, all of which incubators fight.

While such incubators have been donated to developing countries, sometimes they arrived without proper instructions. Even when details are included, sometimes maintenance required specifically skilled technicians.

“One of these rural health experts said, ‘All of these donated pieces of medical equipment from the West always break down. And what is one thing that is always available wherever you go?’ ” Weis recalled.

“And I think, almost half-jokingly, someone said, ‘Well, Toyota trucks are everywhere. … Wherever you go in the world there are Toyota truck parts and people who know how to fix Toyota trucks. So what if we could use that knowledge to develop products for developing countries and use that technology to run the medical equipment?’ ”

When Weis heard the idea two years ago, his reaction was: “Let’s try it. There’s no reason not to try this.

“For me, there was this sort of personal connection to the project,” he explained. “Years ago, I returned to Vietnam and returned to the orphanage in which I used to live. So for me, I felt like this was a real opportunity to give back to a good cause, a project I really believed in. … I had a real personal connection to the idea of trying to develop things for people who don’t have opportunities that the rest of us have.”

Richard Szeitz, Weis’ former sculpture teacher at MSUM, said it’s no surprise his former student’s background plays a role in this project.

“I can understand his interest in this,” the retired instructor said, referring to the 34-year-old as “an exceptionally good student, very creative, very methodical.”

After graduating from MSUM in 1997, Weis studied traditional boat making, returning in 2003 to discuss the age-old craft.

He graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a master’s degree in design last spring.

The concept has raised eyebrows around the world and drawn interest and coverage from media outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corporation. A New York Times story was picked up internationally and translated into Portuguese and Spanish. Weis said the Discovery Channel hopes to do a story on the incubators.

(You wonder if the “Car Talk” guys know about this.)

The next step is to raise funds and build a working prototype.

At one point Toyota’s motto was, “I love what you do for me.” Talking to Weis, you get the feeling that he loves what he’s doing with them.

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533 or jlamb@forumcomm.com