Dec. 17, 2010 -- Four Stanford students turned entrepreneurs have developed an inexpensive infant warmer that functions as a low-tech device. The innovative new product is described as having the potential to save thousands of babies in the developing world.
Embrace Infant Warmers are non-electric, miniature sleeping bags that use a removable wax insert, which can be heated safely using hot water. The product is easy to sanitize and can be heated over and over again.
The team has also designed another model for rural clinics that will use an electric heating apparatus instead of water to warm the wax.
Once the hot wax insert is placed inside the sleeping bag, it can maintain a consistent 98 degrees for 4 to 6 hours, keeping a premature or Low Birth Weight (LBW) newborn at a healthy body temperature.
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The team's invention came out of a class assignment at Stanford's Institute of Design in 2007, when they were tasked to come up with a low-cost incubator design that could help save premature babies born into poverty. The team, Jane Chen, Rahul Panicker, Naganand Murty and Linus Liang, first traveled to Kathmandu, Nepal to better understand the needs of women who would use their product.
"We first went to Nepal and came to understand the magnitude of the problem. The numbers are huge," said Chen, co-founder and CEO of Embrace.
According to World Health Organization, 20 million premature and LBW babies are born around the world every year and 4 million of them die within the first four weeks of life -- that's 450 babies dying every hour.
Incubators are vital because the internal organs of premature babies are not fully developed at birth.
"These babies are so tiny they don't have enough fat to regulate their own body temperature," Chen said. "In fact, room temperature feels like freezing cold water to them."
Premature and LBW babies are at an even greater risk of falling victim to hypothermia and potentially neo-natal death because there is so little fat on them. Those babies that do survive often face a lifetime of debilitating diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and weak brain development.
The Embrace's simple, easy-to-use design addressed several problems that plague the developing world with keeping infants alive. The first one is cost.
A traditional infant incubator can cost as much as $20,000 in the United States, putting this essential, life-saving machine out of reach for many of the world's poor. But at just around $100, an Embrace costs less than 1 percent of that.
Another challenge facing infant survival in the developing world is access to the technology of modern medicine. The majority of premature Nepalese infants are born in rural slums and villages, where hospitals are scarce. Even if a woman is able to get to a hospital, expensive incubators are often in short supply.
Other issues were the product needed to be simple to operate without electricity, and transportable so that mothers and midwives could use it themselves. In many underdeveloped countries, a large number of births still happen at home in areas that often don't have electricity.
Embrace Is Expected to Debut in India in 2011
In areas where incubators are unavailable, some mothers will even resort to tying hot water bottles to infants or placing them dangerously close to light bulbs that can shatter on them.
After developing the Embrace prototype, the team formed a company around their invention and began winning seed money from a variety of foundations.
In 2008, they won the Stanford Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, an award given to companies that have demonstrated ideas with the power to create social change.
The team then developed a plan to bring the Embrace to India -- the country with the largest number of premature and LBW babies in the world. Chen, Panicker, Murty and Liang now all live in India, where they have spent the past year conducting trials and manufacturing the product. They expect to release it on the market in India in March 2011.
"The whole philosophy of Embrace is that you have to be close to your end user to make a really good design," Chen said. "Being here we have just learned so much and it's been critical to the success of this product."
By 2013, Chen expects the Embrace will be able to save more than 100,000 babies in India and prevent illness for as many as 800,000. She and her team are planning to expand to other developing nations in the years to come.
The Embrace co-founders have also learned there is an added benefit to saving so many babies. According to Nobel prize winning economist Muhammad Yunus, reducing the rate of infant deaths actually helps to control population growth. The theory is that as parents become more confident of their babies' survival they are more willing to use contraceptives and have fewer children. In India, a country of over 1.1 billion people, this is a welcomed side effect.
The "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.