Spreading life-saving warmth
A column on people who chucked the easy life to make a difference
Rahul Alex Panicker
WHILE STUDYING at Stanford University, I took a class called ‘Entrepreneurial design for extreme affordability’ at the design school. A partner organisation of the class, based in Nepal, asked us to help design an incubator that costs less than one per cent of traditional incubators, which cost about $20,000 in the US.
As part of the class project, our team travelled to India and Nepal for field research and realised that incubators were available in city hospitals while babies were dying in semi-urban and rural areas. In some places, there were donated incubators, which were being used as storage cabinets, because there was no one to fix them in case of a breakdown.
So we realised that we needed to develop a locally appropriate solution, one that doesn’t require continuous electricity, can be operated with minimal training, is easy to maintain and is low cost.
In India, about 80 lakh babies are annually born premature or with low birth weight. This means that about one-third of infant births in the country are premature. One of the biggest problems these babies face is hypothermia, as they have very little fat on their body and are unable to regulate their own body temperature. So they can’t stay warm and die. Those who survive, tend to develop life-long health problems like early onset of diabetes, heart disease, and low IQ.
The infant warmer that we developed tries to provide a solution to this problem. The infant warmer uses a phase-change material. It is a wax-like substance that — once heated — can maintain itself at human body temperature for hours. It works without continuous electricity and is portable.
Embrace develops low-cost infant warmers. An incubator provides many other support functions, which our infant warmer doesn't provide.
What started off as a class project had the potential to create social impact. So when the partner organisation did not want to take it forward, our team decided to do so.
Embrace was thus founded in 2008 by four Stanford graduates: Jane Chen, Linus Liang, NaganandMurty and me, Rahul Alex Panicker.
Like any young organisation, we’ve had our share of challenges. For instance, India does not have any regulatory body for medical devices. So it was difficult to set a safety standard. Distribution is a huge challenge.
We have the opportunity to make an impact and set an example that doing good and being financially sustainable can go hand in hand. Our mission is to provide all infants an equal chance for a healthy life.
We have launched our product in India. We are now selling in four states of southern India. We have early units in China and Somalia, and aim to reach the rest of India and other developing nations soon.
In future, we intend to design other innovative, low-cost healthcare technologies to help underserved populations.
We believe that the death of a child is a tragedy, but the death of a child for a preventable cause is an injustice.
As told to Samreen Ahmad