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Wednesday February 22nd 2017
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Indian scientists’ innovation – Inexpensive incubator for premature babies

RahulPanickerRahul Alex Panicker, Co-founder Embrace Innovations, won The Economist’s Innovation Award 2013., for his and teams Inexpensive incubator for premature babies.  He is the third Indian to receive the award, the others being Sam Pitroda and Narayana Murthy. Heartiest Congratulations, Rahul, team! .

Cost : $ 3000

Every year more than 20 million babies are born prematurely or with low birth weight – and an estimated 450 of them die each hour.

Yet most of these deaths could be avoided by simply keeping them warm.

“A new-born baby wailing can generally be heard outside the room – even across the hallway. But not my baby. Mine can only whimper,” says Jayalakshmi Devi.

She’s standing outside the neo-natal intensive care unit (ICU) staring at the glass box where her baby son is kept.

Born too soon, her baby boy weighs less than 1.2 pounds (0.54kgs). Doctors have given him around a 40% chance of survival.

Having lost two babies already, Jayalakshmi didn’t want to take a chance this time. After delivering her child in a rural healthcare centre three hours outside Bangalore, she brought the baby to the state run hospital in the city.

At Vanivilas hospital, the neo-natal ICU sees scores of premature babies. Most are born at home, in far off rural areas and are brought here in critical condition.

Row after row, the transparent boxes create warmth to hold the tiny, bare-bodied babies with only an oversized diaper around them. Some of the babies are small enough to fit into your palm.

Low Cost Warmer

During the class Rahul and team learned that, according to the World Health Organisation, 20 million premature and low-birth-weight babies are born around the world each year and four million of them die within the first four weeks of life – about 450 per hour. Because these children cannot maintain their own body temperature, in developed countries they are kept in incubators. But those incubators can cost US$20,000 and aren’t affordable or available in developing nations.

The team traveled to Nepal and India to work on solutions. They wanted a simple, affordable solution that could bring technology to bear on the problem. They went through much iteration before designing what became known as the Embrace infant warmer.

It resembles a baby sleeping bag. Made of waterproof materials, it can be easily cleaned, sterilized and reused. Its secret is a pouch with a wax-like substance that inserts into the back of the bag. The substance has a melting point of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit or 37 degrees Centigrade. Users can melt the pouch with electricity or hot water, insert it into the bag and it will maintain a constant temperature for four to six hours at a time.

Their design won the Stanford Social Entrepreneurial Challenge in 2008. After testing it in India, the four founded Embrace to manufacture and distribute the infant warmer. Its cost is under US$300, less than one percent of the cost of a state-of-the-art incubator in the United States.

Embrace launched its first product in 2011 in India because that is where about 40% of the world’s low birth rate babies are born.

In 2012, Embrace moved into a hybrid structure. The non-profit entity, Embrace, continues to donate the infant warmers for free to the neediest clinics, while a for-profit social enterprise, Embrace Innovations, manufactures the device and handles commercial sales to private entities and government bodies that can afford to pay for them.

The nonprofit organisation Embrace has now set up 20 programs in 10 countries to distribute the warmer. It has hired local staff and established partnerships around the globe, including Afghanistan, Uganda, China, Guatemala and South Sudan. Recognizing that technology alone is not enough to solve the problem of hypothermia, Embrace integrates the warmer into public health education programs to have a deeper and more lasting impact on the communities it serves.

Meanwhile, the for-profit social enterprise Embrace Innovations has produced two versions of the product: the $300 Embrace Nest, meant for use in hospitals, works without continuous electricity, is portable, intuitive to use, and can be used by the mother’s bedside; the Embrace Care uses hot water while providing the baby a constant 37C, and is intuitive enough to be used by a healthcare worker, or a village mother in a home setting.

Chen worked with nonprofit organizations on healthcare issues in developing countries before starting Embrace and is chief business officer of Embrace Innovations. Liang, who previously started two other technology companies, is a special advisor. Murty, who has a background in strategy consulting and venture financing, is the former president of urban products at Embrace Innovations. Panicker, whose expertise is in engineering and product design, is president of products at Embrace Innovations.

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