Could you save a life for less than $1 a day?
That’s exactly what Jane Chen, a student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business set out to do. Chen and her team were given the challenge of creating a baby incubator to help save the lives of over 15 million premature babies born around the world every year. The World Health Organization estimates that over three-quarters of the million babies who die as a result of complications from being born too early could be saved with low-cost interventions.
And one of those interventions involves something pretty simple: keeping the babies warm.
One of the biggest challenges that premature babies face is keeping warm. Their little bodies don’t have the ability to regulate their own temperatures correctly, and without a lot of weight or fat yet, they are in constant danger from a low body temperature. In addition, they burn a tremendous amount of energy simply trying to stay warm, which takes energy away from other necessary functions they need to grow and develop. In many parts of the world, without access to equipment, babies are placed in unsafe and ineffective conditions to stay warm, such as in front of outdated, open space heaters or even just in front of a lightbulb.
After hearing the story of one Indian mother whose baby, born two months premature, died as a result of being four hours away from a hospital, without access to any electricity whatsoever, Chen realized that they needed to offer an incubator that worked without electricity. And so, the Embrace Warmer was born.
The warmer, which doesn’t need electricity, uses a wax-like substance in an internal, removable pouch that melts at human temperature and retains the warmth for up to eight hours. And the best part? It only costs about $200, which is 10,000x lower than most neonatal incubators.
One of the things that impressed me the most about Chen and her team’s designs was how much thought and consideration went into meeting the specific needs of the mothers across the world, who actually need these blankets. Here, in our comfy and cozy world, with access to all the latest technology, we may not realize how the simple, smallest things will make a difference to a baby’s health. For example, in an interview with Bloomberg Business, Chen described how even the color and the wording on the incubator matters.
“Our prototypes were white initially, and it turns out white means death in many parts of Asia,” she explained. “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.”
Chen’s company, Embrace Innovations, tells the stories of mothers around the world who have used the warmer, such as Shabanam, whose 2.2 pound premie was able to stay in the hospital for more care with the Embrace Warmer because the hospital could finally afford to have the necessary equipment on hand.
And while Chen has been able to distribute over 200,000 warmers across the world with the original business grant, she notes that they hope to be able to do more and it’s hard to rely on donations alone. “We still are owed payments from two years ago that we’re probably never going to get,” she explained to Businessweek.
To help fund the cost of bringing more of the life-saving blanket incubators to developing countries around the world, Chen launched Little Lotus, which uses the same wax technology in the incubators to help keep babies at the perfect temperature at home. The Lotus line, which offers everything from baby swaddles to sleeping sacks, operates using the same donation model as Tom’s shoes, providing 1:1 funding for the incubators with every purchase.
The Lotus company, which uses “NASA-inspired” technology, hopes to reduce the risk of SIDS by keeping babies’ temperature more stable as they sleep. SIDS has been linked to overheating in some cases, leading Chen and her team to think of a better way to do baby blankets. “That’s why we designed Little Lotus products with a special fabric that was first developed for NASA spacesuits,” the site explains. “It keeps babies at the ideal temperature by drawing away excess heat when babies get too warm, and releasing it when they start to cool down.”
The journey to save the lives of these babies and bring better, more affordable healthcare solutions to mothers around the world isn’t exactly easy, but Chen is inspired by the stories of babies who have already been saved by her design, like a two-pound premie who was abandoned on a side street, then nursed back to health in the Embrace Warmer in a local orphanage and eventually adopted into a loving family.
“I just think of the women I’ve met who have lost their babies,” said Chen in a video she made through TED. “In those moments it gets so hard I want to quit, I go back and think about those women. That gives me the motivation to keep going.”More On