Jane Chen is the CEO of Embrace Innovations, an organization that produces and provides lifesaving infant warmers that function as high-tech incubators, at a fraction of the cost. She recently founded Little Lotus Baby, a social business that provides an Embrace warmer to a vulnerable infant for every swaddle sold here in the US. We recently heard Jane speak, and were blown away by how she and her team have used innovation and creativity to solve one of the world’s biggest problems. We’re sharing our conversation with Jane today.
Give us the backstory on Embrace. What need were you trying to fill at the beginning? Has your vision evolved at all since then?
Embrace started as a group project in a Stanford classroom. My team was challenged to design a baby incubator that would cost one percent of the cost of a traditional incubator, which is about $20,000. For many healthcare facilities in developing regions, that amount of money is far beyond their means.
We started doing research in places like India and Nepal. There, I met dozens of mothers in villages who had lost their babies because they couldn't even get to a hospital. It became clear that our vision needed to evolve to meet their needs. We came up with the Embrace infant warmer, a sleeping bag designed with a phase-change material, a substance similar to wax, which changes to a liquid state when warmed. When melted, this can maintain a constant temperature of 98 degrees Fahrenheit for hours at a stretch, without the need for electricity.
Your website leads with a startling fact: That the most dangerous day of a baby’s life is the day of their birth. Tell us why that is.
15 million preterm and underweight babies are born every year around the world. 3 million babies die every year in the first months of their lives. 1 million babies die on the day they are born. Without access to modern medical technologies or hospitals, preterm babies in developing countries are the world’s most vulnerable human beings.
Without the Embrace heater, what are some ways mothers and nurses cope without access to incubators around the world?
In rural settings, we see local solutions like light bulbs or space heaters to warm babies, both of which are extremely ineffective and dangerous. There are also solutions like skin-to-skin care, which is putting a baby against a mother’s bare chest. This is every effective, but challenging for moms to do 24/7. My team and I quickly came to realize that what was needed was not just a low-cost incubator, but rather a solution that didn’t rely on a constant supply of electricity. It also needed to be something that would be easy for a village healthcare worker to use.
Tell us a little bit about your impact to date. Is there a particular story of one child or mother that has stood out to you most since your founding?
So far, we have helped 200,000 babies and counting.
There is a child named Nathan who is extremely special to me, and his story is probably surprising to most. Born just under two pounds and abandoned on the side of the road in Beijing after his birth, his little life has come to be one of my biggest sources of inspiration. After Nathan was discovered by staff from a nearby orphanage (Little Flower Orphanage) with whom we had just launched a program, Nathan was swaddled in an Embrace Warmer for thirty days. Thanks to the warmer, and to Little Flower’s loving care, this tiny infant survived! At that birth weight, he was not expected to survive, so his story was incredibly moving to me. When I went to the orphanage to visit him at seven months old, I found a healthy, happy baby boy. Today, Nathan lives in Chicago with his adopted family, and is a smiling, interactive, and very lively toddler. His family has even sent me photos of Nathan posing next to his Embrace Warmer, which he is way too big for now!
How does Little Lotus fit into this model?
Little Lotus Baby is our line of baby products for U.S. consumers. Our swaddles, sleeping bags, and baby blankets use technology inspired by the Embrace Warmer, and help a baby maintain his or her ideal body temperature. As a result, our customers tell us that their babies’ sleep has improved dramatically. In fact, we just completed an informal study in which 8 out of 11 babies slept four hours, on average, longer with our product compared to existing products, over a five-day period. What I am most proud of is our sales model. With each purchase of a Little Lotus product, we help an at-risk baby with the Embrace Infant Warmer. Our goal is help save the lives of one million preterm infants, and we’re rallying our engaged customers to help accomplish that.
How can readers get involved?
The best way someone can help is by purchasing a Little Lotus Baby product for a friend, family member, or for their own baby. We also have a corporate giving program called #CompaniesGiveLove, where corporations sign up to gift all of their expecting employees, mothers and fathers, a Little Lotus Baby product. So far Salesforce.com and Dermalogica have both signed on. We’d love to hear from anyone who wants to partner with us through his or her company!
What are your plans for the future of the company?
We have started prototyping products that have sensors integrated. We’d eventually like to roll out a product that would allow parents to be able to monitor their baby via a smartphone that connects to the product. Right now, our focus is Little Lotus Baby, which we just launched in December. We’re currently taking pre-orders for our next round of products, which will be available again in July. We’re growing our community of parents and families, and we welcome the FEED community to check us out and support our mission. Our vision is that we can get the Embrace warmers to every baby who needs one, and to help save the lives of millions of babies as a result.