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True grit: saving babies through innovation

Jane Chen was so determined to save newborn infants’ lives, she moved to India to get her venture off the ground

By Jan Chen 02 May 2017

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Every year, more than one million babies die on the day they are born – 98% of them in the developing world. Many of them perish from hypothermia. Jane Chen decided to tackle this preventable cause of neonatal deaths head-on, despite never having run a business before.

“I never take no for an answer,” Chen says. “If I hit a wall or stumbling block I always find a way around it. If you put your mind to something, anything is possible.”

Embrace Innovations, the company she founded with Rahul Panicker, makes non-electric infant incubators at 1% of the cost of traditional incubators. The technology consists of a sleeping bag design incorporating a wax-like substance with a melting point of 37°C. Once melted, the wax maintains its temperature for up to eight hours, regulating the newborn’s temperature. This is vital in countries where there is often no electricity for incubators and costs are high. Each Embrace Infant Warmer costs around US$200 (£156).

Chen was CEO for the first five years and is now Chief Business Officer. She and Panicker, an electrical engineer, came up with the idea at Stanford University and went through various design iterations and user testing for years before launching in 2008.

So determined was Chen to make her not-for-profit venture succeed, she moved to India, which has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. When bankruptcy loomed after a healthcare company’s VC arm pulled out of a fundraising round, Embrace employees deferred their salaries for a year while Chen embarked on a frenzy of meetings.

She finally convinced Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff to invest. She even managed to demonstrate the incubator to then-president Barack Obama at the White House and get a donation of US$125,000 (£97,500) from Beyoncé.

Chen exemplifies success through true grit, says Jeff Skinner, Executive Director of the Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at London Business School (LBS). “Innovations are far more likely to break through if they are driven by a powerful purpose and a leader utterly focused on that purpose.”

Chen says: “You have to stay rooted in your purpose, even when the more practical thing to do would be to shut down. “During these challenges I remind myself that this work is bigger than me, and that the challenge is temporary.”

Embrace has also launched a new Little Lotus collection for healthy babies in the US and Europe. Using a 1:1 model, they donate an infant incubator for every Little Lotus purchased. Embrace now works with governments, NGOs and private clinics to distribute their products. They have helped save the lives of more than 200,000 babies so far.

“We are continuing to expand our training and education to complement the distribution of the warmers – it’s incredibly important to also educate mothers on issues like breastfeeding, hygiene, nutrition and the many other factors that are critical to a baby’s health” says Chen.

Chen’s unyielding tenacity won her the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award in last year’s Real Innovation Awards. The notoriously stubborn playwright famously remarked that, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

It was Jane Chen’s sheer persistence and refusal to give up that earned Embrace our award,” says Skinner. “She saw first-hand the good that resulted from her invention and no amount of rejection – by potential investors or corporate partners – was going to deter her from fulfilling that purpose.”

Perhaps you have a similarly inspiring story or you know of somebody who does? Get the recognition you deserve by entering the Real Innovation Awards.

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