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Embracing Technology and Saving Lives

American and Indian students create a device that would keep high-risk babies warm, yet cost less than 1 percent of a traditional incubator’s $20,000 price tag.


Throughout India, many parents of newborn children face a momentous challenge—how do they keep their babies warm? Especially in poor and rural areas, traditional incubators can be scarce and expensive, while other impromptu solutions such as warming babies with light bulbs, hot water bottles and space heaters can prove dangerous and undependable.

Add to that the fact that one in three babies in India is born underweight—and therefore even more vulnerable to hypothermia—and it’s easy to see the magnitude of the problem. Worldwide, a stunning four million children die annually within their first four weeks, according to www.embraceglobal.org.

Beginning in 2007, a quartet of Stanford University graduate students set out to reduce that bitter statistic through innovation and entrepreneurship. As members of a class called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, the team was asked to create a device that would keep babies warm, yet cost less than 1 percent of a traditional incubator’s $20,000 price tag. A complex challenge for sure, but the team of American and Indian students persevered. After the course ended, the team decided to continue on their own, first working at Stanford and then moving to Bangalore. After extensive research, development and testing, they began distributing their invention, the Embrace Infant Warmer, to Indian hospitals in 2011. Since then, the award-winning company has expanded its program to help high-risk babies in China and Somalia.

In a speech at the U.S.-India Higher Education Summit in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called out Embrace as “a simple idea born out of conversations between students from both of our countries talking about shared hopes for a better world that led to action.”

To use the Embrace Infant Warmer, caretakers begin by warming a soft “WarmPak” to body temperature using a custom-designed heater. The WarmPak, which contains a special heat-absorbing material, is inserted into the “BabyWrap” and the child is placed inside. Simple and effective, Embrace can keep a child snuggled at a steady temperature for up to six hours. The device is also portable and easy to clean, and doesn’t require a constant supply of electricity, making it a practical solution for parents living in poor and rural communities.

Embrace co-founder Naganand Murty grew up in a suburb of Mumbai and currently works at its Bangalore-based office. During his senior year as an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, Murty became aware of the challenges facing the public health system within India. “I decided to seek a better understanding of global health systems so I could figure out how to eventually help fix it,” he says.

Murty’s journey led him to the United States and, eventually, to Stanford University in California, where he studied management science—and made the fateful decision to enroll in the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course. “Embrace has been a fascinating exercise in the collaboration between two very distinct cultures,” Murty says of his partnership with both American and Indian colleagues. “Looking at our users through both lenses enables us to see above and beyond what either of us would have individually seen.

“In India...we’ve sought to ‘hack’ our way through to solutions,” he continues. “The Americans have come to expect much higher standards after years of growing up in a system that did deliver those high standards to them. The Americans helped us Indians see how better the system could be, and we helped them by finding a more pragmatic common ground for what we can expect to influence and change.”

Though Embrace has received widespread recognition, stories from mothers who have used their product mean the most to Murty and his colleagues. “It is tremendously satisfying to hear that all these years of hard work are beginning to truly create an impact,” he says.

At the same time, Murty sees such stories as a stark reminder of how much must still be done to improve public health in India. “We also realize that the true unsung heroes of this story are the health workers on the ground who deliver care,” he says. “We see Embrace as an enabler to help them deliver better care.”

 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.