Business Week – Each year, twenty million babies worldwide are born prematurely or with a low birth weight, and four million of them die, most in developing nations. Those who survive often suffer from low IQ, diabetes, and heart disease when they reach adulthood. According to the World Health Organization, 75% of these deaths and ailments could be averted by simply keeping these premature babies warm. Unfortunately, current options for warming babies in developing nations are either expensive or unsafe. The incubators sold in Western countries cost up to $20,000 and require electricity — which is unreliable in developing nations. And ad-hoc solutions like positioning babies under bare light bulbs are simply risky.
Realizing that their customers were doctors and parents in villages (with regular electricity), they set out to identify the product features that would bring the most value to these rural users. That inquiry led them to design a portable infant warmer that looks like a tiny sleeping bag and gives mothers greater mobility and more intimate contact with their babies. The bag in turn contains a pouch of a wax-like phase-change material (PCM) that keeps babies warm for up to six hours at regular body temperatures. Not only is this infant warmer intuitive to use, but it requires only thirty minutes of electricity to heat up the PCM pouch — using a portable electric heater that comes with the product.
Most importantly, priced at approximately $200, the Embrace portable infant warmer costs merely 1 percent of what incubators in Western markets cost. In 2011, Embrace piloted the product in India, where 1.2 million premature babies die each year. Early results have been very encouraging. A preliminary study validated Embrace’s safety and efficacy with twenty infants. Embrace then undertook a more extensive clinical study of 160 premature babies.
Jugaad innovation develops cost-effective approach for creating affordable products and services using limited resources. Jane Chen, Linus Liang, Naganand Murty, and Rahul Panicker cofounded a company called Embrace to come up with an affordable infant warmer for use in developing countries — one that costs far less than incubators available in the West. The founders came up with the idea for Embrace’s frugal business model while they were all attending Stanford University’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability program
Embrace is also experimenting with different pricing models — such as a rental option — to make its product extremely affordable in countries like India, where hundreds of millions in villages live on less than $2 U.S. a day. ”Entrepreneurs often fall in love with their original product idea or business model and fail to listen to customers,” Chen explains. ”We, on the other hand, have no qualms about modifying our product features and pricing again and again until we find a solution that delivers the highest value to our customers at the lowest cost for them. For us, innovation is a dynamic process that never ends.”
Embrace has already negotiated partnerships with multinational pharmaceutical and medical device companies such as GE Healthcare. The company is also working with local NGOs to piggyback on their extensive distribution networks to make the Embrace infant warmer accessible to as many hospitals and clinics as possible in countries like India. Finally, Embrace is testing its infant warmer at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University: the entrepreneurs believe there is a big market for Embrace’s product in the United States, where infant mortality rates are among the highest in the developed world. Embrace has set itself a bold target of saving the lives of more than 100,000 babies over the next three years, as well as preventing illness in more than 700,000 babies. Here’s a video interview we did with Jane Chen that talks more about this.
Other Low Cost Ways to Save Many Lives
Around 950,000 newborns per year die from infection, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Research conducted by PATH in Nepal and Tanzania suggests that many of these infections can be avoided when clean delivery kits are used.
Up to 3.6 million lives could be saved every year if midwifery services were upgraded in 58 developing countries by 2015, according to a major new report released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in partnership with the University of Southampton and 28 other organisations worldwide.
The Midwifery services and the baby warming have overlap in terms of lives that could be saved.
Antenatal corticosteroids, when given to a woman in preterm labor, mature the lungs and other organs in the baby’s body. Two shots of the steroids have been recommended for women in premature labor as early as 24 weeks, but there were no data for 23 weeks or earlier gestation from randomized, controlled trials, Carlo says. And the data was quite limited in trials for pregnancies between 24 and 25 weeks.
“The results of the study showed that mortality was decreased by more than 33 percent and neurodevelopmental impairment was decreased by more than 20 percent,” Carlo says. “It seems that extremely premature infants, from 22 to 25 weeks, can respond as well as infants that are more mature. We also found that using the antenatal corticosteroids did not increase the infection rate for the mothers.”
Carlo says the study is important because it shows that a low-cost intervention, about $25 for two shots, gives even the earliest preemies a chance to survive and thrive.