Four hundred and fifty premature babies die each hour around the globe, and the vast majority of these losses are entirely preventable. One of the biggest problems these babies face is, in fact, hypothermia: They are not able to regulate their own body temperature, and therefore cannot stay warm. In fact, room temperature for these small infants feels freezing cold. Four million babies die within their first month of life. Those that do survive often develop lifelong health problems such as early onset of diabetes, heart disease, and low IQ.
One solution is an incubator, but they cost far too much for many hospitals and clinics around the world: The average price is $200,000. Even hospitals and clinics that can afford incubators or heating tables often load five to 10 babies into one warming device, making infections easy to spread between the infants. In addition, the devices require round-the-clock electricity, and many parts of the globe have sporadic power at best.
"We’ve encountered several areas in our studies that have no way to warm babies at all. Some parents would put premature babies under light bulbs to keep them warm, or hold babies over hot coals or strap them to hot water bottles," says Brie Stewart, a business development associate at Embrace.
That’s where Embrace comes in. The founders of the company were in a class together on Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability at Stanford University, and the professor posed a challenge: Create an incubator replacement that costs less than 1% of the existing technology with the same medical outcomes.
They came up with a tiny sleeping bag with a wax pouch insert. In 20 minutes, a heat source can melt the wax, which maintains a consistent 37⁰C temperature for four hours without electricity. The phase-change material will absorb heat from the baby if the baby gets too hot, or release heat if the baby gets too cold. The inner lining is made from medical-grade plastic, and can be sanitized for multiple uses. They estimate around 50 babies can use the bag before it begins to break down.
In 2010, Embrace carried out clinical trials in hospitals in Bangalore, and a study with Stanford in 2011. They found that the baby-warmer was as effective as current standards of care.
Currently, the social enterprise is working in China, Somalia, and India, and Embrace has helped 500 babies worldwide. In a hybrid model, Embrace has created two sides to its enterprise: a for-profit company that controls R&D, manufacturing, and sales to places that can afford the device. For each warmer sold, the for-profit arm pays a royalty to the nonprofit, because the latter owns the intellectual property.
The nonprofit then gives more warmers to populations below the poverty line. "We donate the warmers to clinics who serve the populations, in return they collect data so we can measure the impact so we can make changes. They give us stories and photos so we can relay that information to our donors to show impact," explains Stewart. The system "allows us to divide and conquer, to reach a broader range of demographics and areas," she says.
This year will be one of scaling for the company. Its collective goal is to impact the lives of 100,000 babies and families by end of the year. Embrace is also interested in expanding to the developed world. The technology could be used in transporting infants if it goes through the process of FDA inspection and certification.