Embrace: A low cost infant warmer

Every year 20 million premature babies are born globally and 450 of them die every single hour. Now, the picture is particularly bleak in developing countries where access to modern medicine is for the privileged few.

One of the biggest problems premature babies face is hypothermia. They are not able to regulate their own body temperature and therefore cannot stay warm. Four million babies die within the first month itself. Those that do survive often develop life long health problems like the early onset of diabetes, heart disease and even low IQ.

Now, these heart wrenching statistics forced Stanford University graduates Rahul Alex Panicker and Naganand Murty into action. They partnered with Jane Chen and Linus Liang to develop Embrace. It’s a low cost infant warmer targeted at giving preemies in developing countries a new lease of life.

An invention that came out of a class assignment in Stanford Institute of Design in 2007 can today potentially give millions of premature and low birth weight babies a new life.

Founded in 2008 by four Stanford graduates Embrace infant warmers are miniature sleeping bags that use a removable wax insert which can be heated with an electric apparatus.

Co-founders Rahul Alex Panicker and Naganand Murty claim their innovation is more effective and safer then the current quick fix solutions people without access to medical care resort to. Embrace today has already sold hundreds of units across six states in India and has pilot projects running in Africa and China.

Murty says, “We have a core technology. We are packaging that technology into different product versions. The first product version that we have released was launched in the market is aimed at clinical care settings. So, these are clinics that range from tier I city clinics like Bangalore, Bombay, all the way down to tier III, tier IV towns. So, our customers are pediatricians, gynecologist, and any general practitioners who provide - neonatal care.”

And to redefine the standard of neonatal care available to the bottom of the pyramid, the team is designed another version of the product for rural markets which will work without electricity and will be ready by the end of the year.

Murty says, “If you go to rural India the conditions are completely different. To design an appropriate technology for those settings, you need access to heating sources that are other than electricity, so that is what we are doing with this next version of the product. We have developed or we are developing this product to work even with hot water. That’s one aspect.”

Murty further says, “The other aspect is that the rural care giver is fundamentally less strained than their semi urban or urban counter parts. We recognise this and we are introducing appropriate design features and user centric features in the product that enables simplicity and intuitiveness of use and also addresses specific safety aspects that are relevant to untrained care givers.”

A hybrid structure with a social as well as fore profit arm Embrace has been funded through a mix of brands and social venture capital. With Silicon Valley investors like Vinod Khosla and Capricorn LLC on board, Embrace hopes to break even by 2014. While hi-tech infant incubators cost as much as Rs 10 lakh, Embrace has come up with its innovation at less than Rs 15,000. But just how has the team at Embrace been able to bring cost down so drastically.

Panicker says, “The way we actually keep cost low is through lean supply chains, lean manufacturing and through new and hopefully innovative design. I also want to point out that cost is not really the only issue, today infact even in rural areas, people spend large amount of money to actually keep their babies alive. I was speaking to a small kirana shop owner in Bhorugram in Churu district of Rajasthan. He actually spent about Rs 20,000 to keep his new born baby in an incubator and eventually the baby died. He said we don’t have options here. That’s what we are trying to bring about. We want to provide more affordable options so that people have choice.”

And to do just this Embrace is tied up with GE Healthcare and other medical distributors for larger presence. Recognising that this is a global need, their next step is to take Embrace to global markets like China, South East Asia and Africa.