Jane Chen, the co-founder of Embrace Innovations, speaks with Not Impossible Now about her company’s baby warmers for developing countries and their new Little Lotus products for the U.S. market.

Jane Chen, the co-founder of Embrace Innovations, holding a baby in an Embrace Nest. (Photo courtesy of Embrace Innovations)

Jane Chen, the co-founder of Embrace Innovations, holding a baby in an Embrace Nest.

(Photo courtesy of Embrace Innovations)

Here’s a shocker: Even in warm countries, babies die of hypothermia. A study published in BMC Medicine on neonatal hypothermia shows that it’s alarmingly common, and, although not often the sole reason for neonate mortality, it’s a large contributing factor.

This is not news for Jane Chen. Chen, the co-founder of Embrace Innovations, saw this reality for herself while researching newborn warming systems for resource-poor environments. Embrace’s baby warming products, the Embrace Nest and the Embrace Care (the first is electric, the second is not) are now in 10 countries. And on Tuesday, Embrace launched their new Little Lotus warming blankets and swaddles for the U.S. market on Kickstarter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NIN: How did Embrace get started?

Jane Chen: Embrace started as a class project at Stanford in 2007, where I was doing my MBA. I teamed up with a group of engineers at the design school during a course called Design for Extreme Affordability. It’s all about creating affordable and appropriate technologies for people living on less than a dollar a day. The challenge posed to us was to build a baby incubator that cost less than 1 percent of the cost of a traditional incubator, which is the U.S. is about $20,000. We first came to understand the scale for the problem. There are about 15 million premature and low birth weight babies born every year around the world. One of the biggest problems is staying warm or regulating their body temperature and that’s the primary function of an incubator.

        What were you seeing, if anything, being used for incubators?

 

Chen: We went to Nepal and India and we would often see were these very crowded hospitals, lots of sick babies and donated incubators just sitting in a corner of the room with no babies in them. Space heaters are often used in hospitals, they put them right in front of the baby and if you put you hand there, you can feel your hand starting to burn.

When we went into the villages, we would see these very, very crude solutions. There were light bulbs or people would tie hot water bottles around their babies or hold them over hot coals.

Why were these donated incubators not being used?

Chen: They’re very complicated and people didn’t have medical training. Also, if something broke then no one knew how to fix it or there were no spare parts. There were so many reasons these things didn’t work in those settings.

What’s the difference between Embrace Innovations, which is for profit, and Embrace, which is nonprofit?

Chen: The nonprofit is a 501(c)(3), and it takes philanthropy to donate products to the poorest places in the world, and with that provides programs and training for hypothermia education and newborn survival. For example, we also train heavily on kangaroo mother care, which is putting the baby against the mother’s bare chest and that not only regulates temperature but also promotes breast-feeding. That’s a major part of what we do.

The for profit sells the product to governments primarily in emerging markets. It licenses the IT from the nonprofit and it does the manufacturing, the distribution, the sales to paying entities. Both sides have been solely focused on emerging markets to date, and the reason for this model was because we wanted to create something self-sustaining, something whereby we could sell the products where there were paying entities such as governments that were paying the most of the healthcare infrastructure in these countries, and some of that money would be given to the nonprofit in the form of a royalty payment and the nonprofit over time, if we hit enough volume, could become self-sustaining.

 

A newborn baby Nathan in an Embrace Nest. (Photo courtesy of Embrace Innovations)

A newborn baby Nathan in an Embrace Nest. (Photo courtesy of Embrace Innovations)

Where are most of the Embrace products of the moment?

Chen: India. India has 40 percent of all the world’s premature babies so my colleagues and I, after we graduated, moved to India and I lived there for the next four years and most of the company is still in India.

How did you go about developing the Embrace Nest?

Chen: Once we realized the problem, we went back to Stanford and we prototyped, realizing we needed a solution that would work without electricity, that would be easy for a mother or midwife to use, etc. So we came up with the concept that’s on the website that it’s a sleeping bag that incorporates phase-change material into the bag itself and at the melting point of 37 degrees Celsius so it’s constantly absorbing or releasing heat to maintain human body temperature. We had this concept by the end of class, but then we decided after we graduated that we were going to move this forward so we moved to India and spent the next four years prototyping, iterating, just making sure it was locally appropriate. We went through hundreds of iterations.

What were some of challenges, once you’d moved to India, to get a viable model?

Chen: Everything. The design itself was challenging in terms of a lot of nuances, which is what makes for a good design and good product. Understanding your customers — and this was a very new customer for us — we were working with doctors and moms in rural areas, understanding their needs and tailoring the product appropriately. Then we had to do clinical studies, then manufacturing and then sales and distribution, building a team and opening an office in a totally foreign land. Everything single piece of it was extremely challenging.

But you felt you couldn’t do all that from the U.S.

Chen: Absolutely not. If you truly want to serve these markets, you have to understand the context and the culture.

I know they’re washable and reusable, but how durable are they?

Chen: They’re very durable. We’ve had minimal problems in the field. The sleeping bag and the wax pouch gets the most wear and tear because that’s the part the baby is interacting with the most. So it depends on how long the infants are in it. We recommend that if there’s a lot of usage, those get replaced on a yearly basis. The heater lasts for about five years.

How much do they cost at the moment and who is usually paying for them?

Chen: The Nest costs about $200. It’s being used by either small clinics or the government, so in India a lot of our distribution happens through the government so they pay for it. Those are clinics that serve the poorest customers so they don’t have to pay for it. From out the nonprofit side, those are all donated, and we raise philanthropy in the U.S. to get those donated.

How did you go about organizing the health training?

Chen: We’re in 10 countries and we partner with local organizations and we’ve developed training programs over time to train mothers to use the Embrace warmer as kind of an entry point because people get really excited about the technology. But once we were there and were able to build rapport with the communities and these mothers, we saw the opportunity to provide training for these other things, like kangaroo care, which is something we really support and is part of our internal metrics. We work hand-in-hand with our local partners to do that and do a lot of monitoring and evaluation to make sure that what we’re doing sticks and is effective.

The kangaroo mother care method is a very traditional thing to do, so why is it necessary for it to be taught?

Chen: Because a lot of people don’t realize the importance of it. They keep the baby on a blanket or don’t hold the baby close. The World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, everyone really promotes this practice, but it can be challenging for mothers to do it 24 hours a day for many reasons. They’re taking care of other children, many mothers go back into fields to work pretty soon after they deliver, there’s a host of reasons it doesn’t happen. We really try to train people on the importance of it. There’s certain techniques for how to do it so that it’s for comfortable for the mom and baby.

When you first saw Embrace Nests being used in clinical environments, how did you feel seeing these babies wrapped up in your invention?

Chen: It was so exciting. Even to this day, seven years, and a baby in an Embrace warmer never gets old. Especially in the early days when we did home visits, the parents were so thankful that they had this better ability to care for their infant. 

I always tell the story of Nathan, who was abandoned on a street in China. The day before we had started working with a local orphanage in Beijing who brought him in and kept him in a warmer for 30 days and Nathan survived. It was the first time a baby of that size had ever survived in the orphanage, they told me.

I was able to visit about 7 months later and hold him in my arms and see how often they were using Embrace with the other babies in that orphanage.

I was able to visit about 7 months later and hold him in my arms and see how often they were using Embrace with the other babies in that orphanage. 

Baby Nathan at 7 months old. (Photo courtesy of Embrace Innovations)

Baby Nathan at 7 months old. (Photo courtesy of Embrace Innovations)

 

    What’s the next project?

Chen: I’m super excited about this. One of the things we’ve been struggling with is how do we make this self-sustaining, which is why we created the hybrid model. But selling to governments is extremely challenging. There’s a lot of bureaucracy, and you’re working in these very volatile political systems.

Last year was an election year in India, and we had a really challenging year. The year before we’d been in an amazing trajectory after just two years. We were in the budget of ten state governments in India, which is really unheard of with a new device, but with the election happening everything came to a stop. No budgets were allocated, no businesses decisions were made, and we nearly had to shut our doors. It was really challenging experience. We didn’t realize the extent to which that would happen.

Last year was terrible for everyone. If you have a big budget and many projects, you can weather that storm. For a single-product start-up, it was very scary. 

So it got me thinking we absolutely need to make sure we have a way that not only does this continue, but it scales the way we envision. Today, we’ve helped 150,000 babies across 10 countries and that’s fantastic, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. When we started this seven years ago we always said, “How do we get to a million babies and beyond?” I moved back to the U.S. a year ago and all my friends were having babies. I kept hearing the same thing over and over, which was how do I know my baby is at the temperature? I thought, well, I actually have a lot of experience.

We’ve developed a U.S. version of our product (Little Lotus). We’ve used similar technology to create a baby swaddle. We had lots of moms give us input and we’re really happy with it. The swaddle has proprietary material in it that helps keep babies at the perfect temperature. We’re integrating it with art. I’ve been collaborating with a Japanese brushstroke artist in Bay Area Drue Kataoka. We’ve been collecting the hand traces of mothers and babies from all over the world who’ve been helped by the Embrace warmer, and that will be the print of the actual product.

Why crowdsourcing and not go straight for investors?

Chen: It’s really the publicity and getting pre-orders. We feel this is a great way to test the market and see if there’s enough interest in this product that it actually has legs. If it does, then we can go to investors. We’re incorporating a one-for-one model. For every product sold in the U.S., one baby in a developing country will be helped by the Embrace warmer. 

Learn more about Embrace Innovations at their website and watch the video below for more information about their Little Lotus products: