Embrace Warms Up Premature Babies At the Bottom of the Pyramid
Thursday, June 16, 2011
A mother living in a rural village outside of Bangalore, India gives birth to a baby two months prematurely. Her family cannot afford to go to the city hospital in Bangalore, so her husband, who raises silkworms that he warms under lamps, decides to care for the baby in the same way. A few day later, their baby dies.
Stopping this tragedy – there are 20 million low birth weight and premature babies born each year – is the primary mission of Embrace. As its co-founder and CEO, Jane Chen, told me in June 9 interview; she started Embrace three years ago after helping build an organization to educate the orphans of parents who contracted HIV/AIDS in China.
In the early 1990s, the Chinese government had a policy of injecting red blood cells pooled from blood donors back into their systems. The government thought that this injection would enable the donors to give blood again more quickly. Instead, the practice brought HIV/AIDS to 60% to 80% of those unwitting donors, and Chen helped run an organization to educate their children, most of whom were not HIV positive.
This experience – and her work on HIV/AIDS with the Clinton Foundation – convinced her that by taking small steps, she could make a positive difference. While getting her MBA at Stanford, Chen took a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. Her team’s assignment was to develop a baby warmer that would be affordable for the caregivers of low birth weight and premature babies born to families at the “bottom of the pyramid.”
Chen learned that creating an inexpensive incubator was not the right solution. That’s because people living, say, 400 miles from Bangalore, do not have enough electricity to keep an incubator running and the people who take care of babies there lack the technical skill to keep those incubators running properly.
So Chen developed a different approach. Her Embrace team developed a small sleeping bag with an interior pouch for a wax-filled heating pad. The pad contains phase-changing-wax-like material that melts at about 37 degrees Celsius – human body temperature – and stays at this exact temperature for four to six hours. It takes about 25 minutes to heat the pouch with an electric or hot water heater.
Unlike traditional incubators that cost as much as $20,000, the Embrace Infant Warmer’s price is “less than 1% of that price.” And, according to Chen, it can work without constant electricity, has no moving parts, is portable and is safe and intuitive to use.