Low-cost baby incubator aims to boost infant health

Back in 2008, Jane Chen was an MBA candidate at Stanford taking a course at the university’s design school called “Design for Extreme Affordability.” The purpose of the class was for students to create products for people in developing countries that were not only low-cost, but that could make a positive impact. Along with an eclectic team that included a fellow business student along with computer science, aerospace, and electrical engineers, Chen devised a portable baby incubator that would be less than one percent the cost of a traditional incubator.

Fast forward six years and Chen’s class project has grown into Embrace – which consists of the for-profit Embrace Innovations as well as a health education-focused nonprofit arm – an organization that has reached the attention of power players like President Barack Obama and Beyoncé by providing an estimated 90,000 babies with life-saving incubators in countries like India, Afghanistan and Uganda.

Now expanding its reach to other developing countries as well as planning for an early 2015 domestic U.S. retail launch of its incubator technology, Embrace Innovations has established itself at the forefront of global women’s and infant health care, Chen told FoxNews.com.

“Our hope would be that this technology would be in every clinic and every home that needs it,” Chen said. “We want Embrace to become the standard of care for providing warmth and temperature regulation to infants, and we hope to improve many millions of lives through this product.”

The technology that Chen and her team developed is fairly simple. Looking like a small sleeping bag, the baby warmer does not rely on a continuous power supply, which makes it ideal for clinics, hospitals, and homes that might not always operate under the most ideal conditions. The device contains a pouch of wax that is melted by an electric heater. After being initially warmed up for 30 minutes, the pouch stays warm for eight-hour intervals. The heating mechanism can be powered initially by hot or boiling water, and as the wax melts, the incubator maintains a normal human body temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit. An easy-to-read color-coded temperature indicator on the device reveals if it gets too warm or too cold.

Chen and her classmates visited hospitals in Katmandu, Nepal, and observed that the incubators the hospital did have were not only incredibly expensive (a traditional incubator costs $20,000), but that the facilities themselves did not always have the electricity to power the devices or replacement parts to fix devices that broke down.

To perfect the final design, Chen said she and her classmates came up with “hundreds of iterations of the device,” and following their Stanford graduation, the entire team moved to India.

“You can’t be in Paolo Alto and create something for a developing country from afar,” Chen said. “It’s not as simple as making one trip a year. You have to live and breathe the culture to not only understand the product, but to help with training and distribution.”

While working directly with doctors and nurses, the Embrace team realized that many of the babies in these communities did not even wear diapers, which made it a necessity to ensure the incubator was waterproof. As a result, the device is made of microbial fiber with few seams so that dirt cannot collect easily.

“There was one woman we encountered whose first baby had died two years prior. She then gave birth to a premature baby girl who was kept in an Embrace warmer for about two weeks,” Chen said. “We visited three months later and the baby was healthy and thriving – the mother told everyone in the village about the product, everyone knew about it. The great-grandmother knew about it. Everyone was thrilled.”

Today, most of Embrace Innovations is based in India, and Chen, who served as the organization’s first CEO, now works as its Chief Business Officer. The position plays to Chen’s background in business and health care development. Before Embrace, she worked as the program director for a startup nonprofit in China that addressed HIV/AIDS prevention, and also worked in Tanzania for the Clinton Foundation’s HIV/AIDS Initiative.

“Anyone in the U.S. who needs antiretrovirals can get them, but in these developing countries, people just don’t have access to them. The most frustrating part is that these things do exist. Why aren’t they getting to people? My goal is to try to bridge this disparity that I saw in health care and the infant warmer is a big part of that,” she said.

Embrace’s profile has grown considerably in the past year. A big coup came from joining the Beyoncé publicity machine. In 2013, Chen was approached by Gucci after she gave a talk as a TED Fellow. Embrace then became a project supported by Chime for Change, the fashion company’s philanthropic arm co-founded by Beyoncé that aims to raise funds and awareness for girls’ and women’s empowerment. In June, $125,000 was awarded to Embrace Innovations and nonprofit Millennium Promise to bring 320 infant warmers to 100 rural health facilities in 11 sub-Saharan African communities. The singer herself was there to present the award to Chen.

From the entertainment world to the White House, Chen even met President Obama back in June at the first-ever Maker Faire, which showcased new U.S.-made innovations and technologies.

Currently, Embrace operates on a two-tiered model – the nonprofit side that promotes educational programs on nutrition and hygiene is powered by philanthropic donations, while the for-profit “social enterprise” used for manufacturing and sales distribution of the device gets funding from private investors. Part of the company’s expansion involves moving away from just developing countries. Chen said that Embrace Innovations is readying for a "major announcement about a U.S. market launch in 2015," and the company plans on launching a Kickstarter early next year.

“We also hope to develop more technologies, more products,” Chen said. “We are developing rapport with communities, looking at diagnostics, and figuring out the next step. There are many issues beyond temperature regulation that face mothers and infants. We want to put women’s and children’s health front and center.”

To make a donation to Embrace's initiative to provide incubators as well as education to mothers and health care workers in developing countries, visit http://embraceglobal.org.