TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Jane Chen

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Jane Chen has helped develop and market a low-cost device that could save millions of premature babies in the developing world. Read this TED interview to discover Jane’s inspirations, love of music and penchant for making pies. (Watch her talk from TEDIndia 2009.)

Tell us about your work.

I am the co-founder of a non-profit organization called Embrace. We are developing a low-cost infant incubator for use in developing countries. About 20 million low-birth-weight and premature babies are born every year around the world. Four million die annually, and one of the biggest problems these babies face is staying warm, because they don’t have enough fat on their bodies to regulate their body temperature. As a result, many babies die or grow up with severe lifelong health problems.

Temperature regulation is the primary function of a traditional incubator, but incubators can cost up to $20,000. They require a constant supply of electricity, they’re difficult to operate and you’re not going to find them in rural areas where many of these babies are dying.

So as a solution to this problem, my co-founders (Naganand Murty, Linus Liang and Rahul Panicker) and I have been working with an amazing team over the last two years to develop the Embrace Infant Warmer. It incorporates a phase change material — a wax-like substance — into a sleeping bag design. You heat this pouch of phase change material, and then once it’s melted, it’s able to maintain a constant temperature over the next 4 to 6 hours without the use of electricity. You place the pouch of phase change material in the sleeping bag, and it creates a warm microenvironment for the baby. We’ve gotten the cost down to less than one percent of the cost of a traditional incubator, and we’re currently in the process of testing the device. The whole team moved out to Bangalore about a year ago — to India, where I am now.


ABOVE: Baby in an Embrace Infant Warmer

We’re testing at a number of hospitals here, and the first version of the product will be released this fall, in November. This version is intended for small clinics that don’t have any equipment available to take care of babies. It has an electric heater and is suitable for clinics that have intermittent access to electricity.

There’s also a big need for the product as a transport incubator. In India, babies are often born in tiny little clinics and if they have any complications they’re referred to bigger hospitals, and that transport period is the most critical time in the baby’s life — the first few hours after it’s born.

We also have a second version of the product that we’re developing for rural areas — places that don’t have access to electricity at all. That version will be used in the home by a mother, midwife or community healthcare worker.

Read more of this interview with Jane Chen after the jump >>


With such great need in rural areas, why start in clinics?

As we were doing our research, we’d go into villages to talk to mothers and midwives and we would ask, “What would influence you to use this product?” And they would say, “Well, if the village doctor recommended it.” So we’d go to the village doctor and he would say, “If the city doctor recommended it.” So it became clear that there’s a line of influence and that you have to gain traction in the medical community first.


ABOVE: Embrace employees Rahul Panicker and Rajan Patel holding Embrace Infant Warmers

You left your consulting career in Hong Kong to volunteer with children in China orphaned by HIV/AIDS. What started you on your current path?

I think it all goes back to that experience doing HIV/AIDS work in China. That started when I was working as a consultant at Monitor Group in Hong Kong. I started reading a series of articles in the New York Times about the AIDS epidemic in China. In the ’90s, all these poor farmers in China contracted HIV
selling their blood. There was a big, government-run campaign, and they would go to very poor villages, pool people’s blood together, separate the plasma — which is what they needed — and then re-inject every donor with the remaining blood cells, believing that this would allow them to donate again more quickly. So people were donating five or ten times a day, and getting paid five dollars per bag of blood. As a result, in the villages worked in, 60 to 80 percent of the adult population was HIV-positive. That was creating millions of orphans and most of these children did not have HIV, because the parents contracted the disease after they were born.

Reading these stories was shocking and horrifying, and something just clicked. You know, I realized how lucky I am to have been born into the life I’ve been born into. As Warren Buffett always says, we won the genetic lottery. But, I could have easily been born into another life. These people were just trying to make an extra dollar for their families and contracted this horrible disease, they were receiving no help and were left to die in the most horrible way possible. I couldn’t go on without doing something about this. I started volunteering for an organization that was helping to support the children orphaned by AIDS. When I found that I could have an impact and because I was so passionate about what I was doing, I packed up my bags, left my consulting job, and went to work for this organization full time.

In the time that I was there we went from helping 200 to over 3,000 students, and by the end of my time at this organization, the Chinese government, partially as a result of our visibility efforts, stepped up to the plate and agreed to provide free education for all of these orphans.

That experience was my first in the social sector and really opened my eyes to a number of things. First of all, it opened my eyes to the suffering of the world — to the fact that there are huge healthcare disparities between developed and developing countries. In the US, anyone who needs antiretroviral medication can access it, but in the places I was working with in China — and then I later went on to do HIV/AIDS work in Africa — it was impossible to get this medicine. Impossible to access even the most basic medication! So, it became a personal passion of mine to try to bridge that disparity in healthcare and Embrace is a way for me to do that.

That led me to graduate school, and it was at Stanford that I first started Embrace. It was through a class called “Design for Extreme Affordability,” which is half MBAs and half engineers, working together on developing technologies for people living at the bottom of pyramid markets.

The challenge posed to my team at that time was to make a baby incubator that costs less than one percent of the cost of a traditional incubator, which is $20,000. We began doing research first in Nepal, then in India, and realized what was needed was not just a lower-cost version of what exists today, but an entire paradigm shift in the way we’re thinking about this problem. You needed something that could work without electricity, that’s portable and really easy and intuitive to use so that a mother, midwife or really low-trained healthcare worker can operate it. It was based on these factors that we developed Embrace.

We moved to India because it has the largest number of premature babies in the world. Of the 20 million that I mentioned, 40 percent of those babies are born in India alone.

You discovered your passion a bit by chance, reading those newspaper articles. Do you have recommendations for people looking to discover their passion?

It certainly was chance, but one of my favorite quotes is by Louis Pasteur: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I think that at that point in my life, I liked what I was doing — it was very intellectually challenging — but I knew it was something that I wasn’t passionate about. And I was looking for that thing that would make me wake up every morning really excited to go to my job. Having that in the back of my mind as I read these articles, I knew that that was the path I was going to take.

Another of my favorite quotes is, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

What were you like as a kid?

I was born in Taiwan and moved to the US when I was four. Since I was about seven, I’ve loved cooking. I’d wake up at five in the morning and make cinnamon rolls and all these different things.

My dad, coming from a very traditional family, always wanted me to be a doctor. So he would always ask me, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” And I’d have to say “Dr. Chen.” As I took an interest in cooking, he was so scared that I would want to be a chef, that he banned me from the kitchen [laughs]. He wouldn’t allow me in the kitchen at all.

So you can only imagine my parents’ shock when I told them years later when I decided to quit my cushy consulting job and go do non-profit HIV/AIDS work in China.

What are some of your favorite things to cook?

I love making pies. Apple-lemon pie — that’s my specialty.

I love trying different cuisines all the time. I love baking … I wish I had more time to cook these days. I’m trying to pick up some Indian cooking. But if I had to choose one cuisine to eat every day it would probably be Japanese food.

What else do you do for fun?

I love classical music, and have been playing violin since I was seven. Music helps me to express feelings in a way words often cannot. I love Benjamin Zander’s TEDTalk on classical music.

I’m a big foodie, I do a lot of yoga — I love yoga — I love running … I just enjoy being really active, and traveling.

What social problems are you going to tackle next?

I’m still really passionate about HIV/AIDS and so I’m really interested to do something that can help in this field. I think there are ways to leverage our current technology to help. For example, rapid diagnostic tests need to be kept at certain temperatures. So, is there a way to re-engineer our device so that it can be used to cool rather than warm? I think that would be interesting to look at.

I was recently visiting a hospital in South Africa where 80 percent of the patients are HIV-positive. And of those, 40 percent are co-infected with tuberculosis. Now, tuberculosis is airborne, and because masks are so expensive, there are all these people walking in the tuberculosis ward with no masks on, which is absolutely frightening. So that’s another thing I’m interested in: Can we make a lower-cost or more effective mask that can help with tuberculosis?

There are so many problems out there and as you start doing this work you see more and more things. You want to help everyone. But as I said, we want to stay really focused and make the Infant Warmer a success.

How has the TED Fellowship impacted you?

Work-wise, ever since my TEDTalk was posted, we receive requests all the time from people all over the world wanting to help us in some capacity, whether that be in giving us money or something else.

One guy who saw my TEDTalk pitched the story to National Geographic. Now they’re interested in doing a documentary on Embrace, and he’s actually coming out to India this weekend to start filming. So we’re super excited.

We have polymer experts who want to help us with product design … people all over the world who have offered their help, so that’s been super, super exciting.

On the personal front, TED blew my mind. It was the most amazing conference I’ve ever been to. I was so inspired. I don’t consider myself an emotional person — I must have cried three times the first day [laughs].

Hearing about the different types of work people are doing, I was even further inspired to do what I’m doing now. And I consider it brain candy. I feel like I was really educated and inspired.

Anything else before we finish up?

Everything we do at Embrace is possible because of our amazing board members, volunteers, donors, interns and advisors — particularly the company D2M, which has been so generous in their support in developing innovative technologies as well as sourcing materials.


ABOVE: Happy mom holding her baby in an Infant Warmer

The reason I love working on this effort is not only because we’re providing a simple, low-cost solution to this huge need out there, but beyond that we’re also empowering women to save their children. That really motivates me to do the work day after day, because I meet women in villages all the time who have gone through the suffering of losing their child. And that is the most awful feeling in the world — not being able to save your own baby.

So, I think part of what Embrace is doing is alleviating the pain a family has to go through when it loses a child. That’s something that every parent can relate to, and it’s also empowering mothers to care for their babies.