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Stanford students to debut life-saving infant warmer in India

By Jenny Peter | 20 Mar 2011

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Mothers in rural villages in India are using the Embrace infant warmer to prevent hypothermia in newborns. (Photo courtesy of http://embraceglobal.org)

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A baby’s small hands and dainty fingers have turned blue. Her two-day-old body is shaking and she is letting out a barely audible cry. There she is, lying in a rural village in Bangalore, India with lamps over her head, trying to stay warm. Her body could fit in one hand.

This is not an uncommon sight. In India, more than two million children under the age of five die annually. Most babies die from hypothermia – their body temperature is too low because they don’t have enough fat to maintain a healthy weight. A baby’s birth normally occurs in the home or at a small clinic, several hours from a hospital. In many rural communities, a baby is not even named until one month after the birth because many don’t make it that far.

Inspired by stories like this, Stanford MBA student Jane Chen and three other Stanford graduate students designed a baby wrap product for a class challenge in 2008. Chen then co-founded Embrace, a non-profit organization that created an innovative baby wrap that could save thousands of babies’ lives in third world countries.

“A personal passion of mine is to try and bridge the disparity in health care between developed and developing countries,” Chen said, “And Embrace is a platform for me to do that.”

Embrace’s original team members met in a social innovation class at Stanford. Linus Liang holds a master’s in computer science, Rahul Panicker has a Ph.D in electrical engineering, and Naganand Murty is an aerospace engineer.

After years of fine-tuning their product and moving to India to dedicate their lives to this cause, the team will formally introduce their baby wraps there this month, after finishing the last rounds of testing in Bangalore. In the next five years, Embrace expects to reach more than one million babies around the world.

“Let me be very clear: I think Embrace is one of the most interesting, neat, plausibly impactful innovations that I’ve seen, and I’ve tracked stuff very closely,” said Bill Meehan, a lecturer teaching strategic management at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

On Feb. 8, Chen guest lectured in professor Meehan’s class: strategic management of nonprofits. Just a few years ago Chen was a student in the class herself.

Two years ago Chen and her team first traveled to India to see firsthand why so many babies were dying. They learned that infants cannot grow in their crucial first month if they are battling hypothermia because their organs cannot develop properly.

The Embrace infant warmer uses paraffin wax, heated with boiling water, to raise an infant's body temperature to precisely 98 degrees. (Photo courtesy of http://embraceglobal.org)

In India’s hospitals, the Embrace team learned that 80 percent of the newborns needed incubators simply to keep warm. However, most of those who died lived in rural areas far from hospitals, so they didn’t have access to the $20,000 incubators.

After being exposed to babies such as Neisha, Embrace created its mobile and cost-effective baby-wrap product. It wasn’t easy.

“There’s a line of influence that you have to tap into in that medical realm in order to make change there,” said Chen, who decided to sell the baby wraps to doctors in India first.  “What we’ve also seen is that there are very few low-cost medical devices out there. It’s almost an oxymoron because testing is so difficult.”

The Embrace wrap looks like a sleeping bag for newborns, simulating a warm womb that puts a baby immediately to sleep. The wrap can be sterilized in boiling water and used over and over again, even for multiple babies.

The wrap’s inside is seamless so bacteria won’t collect there. The magic is what’s in the pouch of the wrap – plastic packets of special paraffin wax and water can be heated to a newborn’s precise 98-degree body temperature. The temperature holds for up to four hours. The wrap can be reheated and is impossible to overheat, preventing the risk of burning a baby.

One version of the product is heated electrically, but Embrace offers a version suitable for rural areas without electricity. It can be warmed simply by pouring boiling water over the wax. Priced at less than $200, the wrap costs only one percent as much as an incubator.

Doctors in third world countries are now eager to place orders for this portable, ultra-low-cost product. Embrace will serve India first, and then expand to other countries, including Uganda, Haiti and Poland.

For some, the wraps alone will be enough for mothers in rural areas to keep their babies alive. Others will use the wraps to sustain infants who need to be transported from rural areas to hospitals.

“What’s been rewarding is recently taking [the product] out into the field and seeing the excitement of the doctors and mothers who have lost a baby,” Chen said. “When we took the device and showed it to one mother, Sajatha, she started crying and said, ‘Maybe if I had this, I could have a baby.’ Hearing something like that, that we have the power to help people save lives, is incredible.”

Sajatha had lost three infants to hypothermia because she couldn’t make the four-hour trek to a hospital.

Chen spoke for TED, a non-profit that is devoted to ideas worth spreading, and gave a TED presentation in India last year with these closing words: “We can truly bring technology to the masses, and we can save millions of lives through the simple warmth of an embrace.”

According to an ABC news video aired in December, babies like Nisha are now warm, and their faces are lively. Unlike many infants in Nisha’s rural home, she has now celebrated her sixth month of life.

Jenny Peter and Savannah Greene contributed to this video.


Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this article, Sajatha’s name was misspelled, Jane Chen was incorrectly identified as a TED employee rather than a guest speaker, and the baby recorded in the ABC video was incorrectly identified as Nisha, when it was actually another baby who received Embrace.

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