Saving the lives of newborns through design thinking

August 25, 2015 The Architech Team

A mother of five in rural India has just given birth to her fifth child. The child is seven weeks premature. She was lucky to get to the hospital in time: Her village is a two-day walk to the north, but she set out as soon as she felt the familiar rumblings of the first contractions. The little boy weighed just over three pounds at birth and has spent the first five days of his life in an incubator. He’s doing well, putting on weight steadily. But she has to get home. She believes she has no other option. Her sense of family obligation compels her to return to the village.

She straps her newborn to her chest and heads north. She hopes the heat from her body will do the same work as the incubator and she will soon be able to introduce her baby to his father and older siblings. He will die before the halfway mark of their journey.

Even today, this story is a reality of living in an underserved region. The mother forms part of a statistical group that social scientists, economists, and otherwise caring people in developed nations refer to as a victim of circumstance: Of the million babies who die each year before the end of their first day on earth, 98% come from developing nations.

Like the little boy in India, many of these babies are premature and could have been saved by access to adequate resources. In 2007, five students decided there was no legitimate excuse for these circumstances to continue. They set out to create a solution using design thinking principles and strategies. The result – a portable heating pouch called Embrace Baby Warmer – was so extraordinary it has reached more than 140,000 infants to date, won numerous awards, and impacted the lives of families in 11 countries.

embrace baby warmer

Embrace sounds like a simple idea, yet its execution emerged slowly, piece-by-piece, through an intensive process of customer journey mapping, interviews, multiple prototypes, and rebuilding after inevitable setbacks. In other words, it’s the ultimate design thinking story.

Embracing the challenge

Purpose served as the fuel that sparked this particular fire. As David and Tom Kelley describe in Creative Confidence, the students were enrolled in the faculty’s Design for Extreme Affordability course. Students who sign up for this course in particular are driven by a compulsion to put talents toward solving problems of significant global impact.

Jane Chen, Rahul Panicker, Linus Liang, Razmig Hovaghimian, and Naganand Murty began the process that would change so many lives by brainstorming ways to lower the global infant mortality rate. During their initial research phase, they learned premature babies don’t get a chance to grow to full term size because they lack the necessary fat stores to regulate their own body temperature. To prevent the onset of hypothermia, an all-too-often fatal condition in the young, preemies must remain in a consistently heated environment until they grow large enough to kick-start their own internal climate control.

With the initial stages of their project underway, Linus headed to Nepal to begin his field research. He spoke to numerous clinicians who treat low birth weight and premature babies and toured their facilities. While visiting one of the region’s more modern hospitals, however, Linus noticed there were plenty of available incubators. In fact, many of them lay empty in the wards. When he asked why, he learned the truth – most of the babies who needed them were born in villages at least 30 miles away and couldn’t get there on time.

Getting warmer

Linus took this problem back to his team in California. Instead of a new kind of incubator, the optimal solution would involve bringing the heat source to the villages. More importantly, the source would have to cost a fraction of the price, and be intuitive enough so mothers would have no user complications. The risks were simply too high for failure.

By 2008, the team had created its first prototype of many more to come, using margarine as phase-change material. At the end of their prototyping journey, they emerged with an infant-sized sac shaped like a sleeping bag that wraps up the baby like a swaddle. Inside the sac is a paraffin-based pouch which warms up in a heater and maintains its temperature for up to four hours at a time. At the time, a built-in thermometer indicated the correct temperature. During the product’s clinical trials, it was established that the Embrace Baby Warmer was as effective as the current standard of care at the hospital. More than that, it was a model of sustainability: One warmer alone was durable enough to save 12 babies. It was ready for market.

embrace baby warmer

Solving the ultimate problem

That’s when a completely unexpected hiccup emerged. As Rahul describes to the authors of Creative Confidence, the team found that mothers in one small Indian community were refusing to heat their pouches to the correct temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. One woman explained the locals felt Western medicine was “too strong,” which meant if a prescription called for one teaspoon of medicine, many would cut the dosage in half “just to be safe.” They applied this same logic to the baby warmer, setting the temperature at 30 degrees Celsius, not realizing the temperature was not subject to interpretation. A seven-degree drop could still result in the death of a premature child.

As a final iteration, the Embrace team figured out that by removing the numbers from the thermometer, and simply indicating when the correct temperature had been reached with a simple “OK,” the mothers who held these beliefs had no cause to second-guess the product’s utility. Like their entire concept, the solution proved simple yet brilliant.

The five students who began a semester with idealism and ambition have done more to change the world than they ever anticipated. Today their company is a global business with impact and limitless potential.

embrace baby warmer

If you’re a game changer, world crusader, and impact chaser looking to create your own life altering solution, design thinking can provide you with the tools to get there. Contact us today!

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