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When Jane Chen and Drue Kataoka met at the Forum of Young Global Leaders in 2012, they quickly formed a friendship based on their shared passion for carrying out socially impactful work. They both came from significantly different backgrounds — Chen is the co-founder of Embrace, a startup that hopes to curb high worldwide infant mortality rates by way of the low-cost Embrace infant warmer, while Kataoka is a visual artist whose often interactive work aims to bridge the perceived gap between art and technology. Flash forward three years, and the two women have launched a unique collaboration that combines Chen’s business and Kataoka’s art to raise awareness of and ultimately decrease high global infant mortality rates.
“I oftentimes think great collaborations bring about great friendships, and great friendships bring about great collaborations,” Kataoka told FoxNews.com. “Jane and I spent a lot of time talking about infant mortality and I really wanted to create an artwork that would be participatory and that would be really impactful.”
Chen serves as CEO and co-founder of Little Lotus, a new line of baby products inspired by the Embrace Warmer, which been used by 150,000 babies worldwide. The line includes “smart” swaddles, sleeping bags, and blankets, taking the basic idea of Embrace’s incubator and bringing it to U.S. retailers. Little Lotus’s products use material initially developed by NASA to regulate infants’ skin temperature, preventing babies from getting too hot or too cold. The product line launched a Kickstarter campaign April 14. Pre-orders will take place through the fundraiser, which ends in May. Chen said that products will start to be delivered three months after the end of the campaign.
While a retail line, Little Lotus is closely tied to Embrace’s altruistic roots. For the purchase of each Little Lotus product, Chen said $25 will be donated to the nonprofit Embrace, providing one baby with an incubator in a developing country.
“Infant mortality is one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals that we have made the least progress on,” Chen told FoxNews.com “This has to be a priority. Moving forward, you’ll see various organizations, nonprofits, businesses – stakeholders across all sectors of society working to make a difference.”
The statistics are sobering. Chen said that about three million babies die every year within the first 28 days of life. It’s a number that Kataoka said many people in developed nations aren’t necessarily thinking about on a daily basis. This is where her art comes in. Each Little Lotus product is embellished by artwork from Kataoka’s Touch Our Future interactive art project, which she has been working on with Chen. What is the art featured on the Little Lotus products? Hand tracings of mothers and infants helped by the Embrace Warmers in developing countries.
“The Embrace Warmers had such a big impact, and we thought it would be a great idea to take the actual physical hand traces of the mothers and infants and connect people through this art, connect parents and children from around the world,” Kataoka said.
Over a period of several months, Kataoka and Chen worked with teams on the ground working in communities in countries like Uganda, Afghanistan, and India to retrieve hand tracings. Chen and Kataoka made some hand tracings themselves and both said the experience was incredibly moving.
“The numbers are so overwhelming, but you realize that art can push through that a bit,” Kataoka added. “Jane and I wanted to do artwork and an art installation that would connect people to issues of infant mortality. Art becomes a wonderful bridge, and carries with it, an emotional and an intellectual side. The message sticks through art.”
The idea continued to expand. Everyone from Heidi Klum and Chelsea Clinton to Nobel Peace Prize laureates provided hand tracings. Chen said a social media component tied to Touch Our Future – which launched the same day as Little Lotus’s Kickstarter campaign – allows anyone to raise awareness about global infant and women’s health.
Through a Touch Our Future mobile app, people can submit images of their own hands. The photographs are then converted through digital image processing into “digital hand tracings,” Chen said. This interactive, social media-fueled artwork will be on display on the Touch Our Future website.
“The open hand is the opposite of a fist,” Chen said. “A fist is violent; it means war, while a hand is open and reflects an openness to friendship and communication. We call it Touch Our Future because when you impact the life of an infant, you are actually touching a future that we won’t see. You are really having an impact on their (the infants’) future.”
By incorporating the handprints on the Little Lotus products, Kataoka said that it offers a visceral reminder to parents in more fortunate circumstances, of the importance of infant health worldwide.
“On the swaddles and blankets we only have hands of mothers and babies of developing countries. It’s unusual to have fine art on baby products, so when you are holding your baby – holding the most precious thing in the world – you will also be holding the hands, crisscrossing hands with mothers and babies from around the world,” Kataoka said.
In addition to helping to facilitate this mass-interactive art project, this launch marks the next phase in Chen’s mission to use relatively simple technology to help as many babies globally as possible. The financial success of Little Lotus will only help bolster the continued success of the nonprofit Embrace Innovations.
“I hope that Little Lotus can provide a funding vehicle to enable us to continue to do the research needed to reverse these statistics, to continue to improve our technology, and to develop new innovations,” Chen added.
For Kataoka, Little Lotus and Touch Our Future marks the perfect convergence of art and technology.
“You look at the arc of our two careers and you see a similarity,” she said. “I hope this installation and work can serve as an exciting model of interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration. It’s really the power of art and social impact coming together, of art and technology coming together.”