A Simple, Effective Way to Reduce Infant Mortality
By Karen Weise, April 11, 2016
In 2008, as a student at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Jane Chen took a class at the university’s design program that focused on creating products for people living on less than $1 a day. Her team’s challenge was to build a cheaper baby incubator. That class assignment evolved into the Embrace Warmer, which costs about $200, a fraction of the price of a traditional incubator. Chen says more than 10,000 Embrace Warmers are being used globally.
Q: WHAT INSPIRED THE EMBRACE WARMER?
A: There are 15 million preterm babies born every year, and one of the biggest problems they face is staying warm while regulating their body temperature. In India we saw there was often no electricity for incubators, plus nobody was trained on how to use them. Then I started going to village settings. One of the first women I met was a mother in South India who gave birth to a baby two months premature. She took her baby to a village doctor who told her to go to the hospital. The hospital was over four hours away, and she didn’t have the means to get there, so her baby died. We realized we need a solution that worked without electricity and is easy enough for a mother or midwife to use. We came up with the Embrace Warmer. It looks like a sleeping bag for a baby and uses a waxlike substance, which, once melted, maintains the same temperature for eight-hour stretches. We’ve helped more than 200,000 babies in 14 countries.
Q: HOW DID THE DESIGN EVOLVE?
A: We realized babies don’t wear diapers, so we needed waterproof materials and sterility became really important. Our prototypes were white initially, and it turns out white means death in many parts of Asia. Then as we started going to villages, mothers would say to us, “We don’t trust Western medicine, so if you told me to keep this at 98 degrees, I would keep it at less than that.” That led us to a binary “OK/Not OK” indicator, as opposed to a numeric scale.
Q: HOW DO YOU ENSURE THE WARMERS AREN’T DISCARDED OVER TIME?
A: It’s really about training people and training nurses about how to use it. Newborn survival has become such a big topic in global health, so a lot of governments have invested in training and equipment. Nurses are trained to put babies in radiant warmers, like heat lamps, so in many cases we are not fundamentally changing the behavior. At one of the first hospitals we worked with in India, initially we would go in there and test it out. Over time it became the standard of care. One day I walked into the hospital, and in the neonatal intensive care unit there was a set of guidelines posted to the door and one said, “Keep the baby in the Embrace Warmer.”
Q: WHAT’S NEXT?
A: It’s hard to just rely on donations. We still are owed payments from two years ago that we’re probably never going to get. We wanted to implement a Toms Shoes model, which is buy one, give one. We’ve just launched a product line for the U.S. market called Little Lotus. It’s a collection of swaddles, sleeping bags, and blankets for healthy babies. On the inside, they use microns of the same wax we use in the Embrace Warmer to keep babies at the perfect temperature. Parents are telling us babies are sleeping longer. The for-profit spinoff will hopefully fund the expansion of the baby warmers in the developing world.