Sunday, May 1, 2011

Embracing a Way to Change the World

In a Stanford course, Jane Chen finds her passion is saving babies

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS —Twenty million low-birth weight babies are born each year and four million of them die within their first month of life. But Stanford Graduate School of Business alum Jane Chen, MBA ‘08, is seeking to change that statistic one baby step at a time.

Chen is cofounder and CEO of Embrace, a nonprofit company that develops low-cost portable incubators for developing countries. The Embrace infant warmer was just launched in India last month and is now being sold. It is the first in a series of products the company hopes to provide families in low-income communities

She spoke at the annual Women in Management banquet May 4, sharing lessons learned since she first conceived of the product while a GSB student. But before her journey started at Stanford, Chen had committed her life to changing the world.

It was while working for the Clinton Foundation in Tanzania on an HIV-AIDS project that Chen concluded her passion in life would be improving health care for the impoverished. And she came to the realization that she must start at the beginning of life to help solve the myriad of problems that stem from lack of knowledge and access.

“I realized these medications were useless unless these people had proper nutrition,” she says of AIDS drugs. “But how do you educate people in a place where they can’t talk about sex openly, where you can’t expect women to ask their husband to put on a condom, when they have no say in the household because they have no earning power and no education? The HIV problems showed me that this touches on so many facets - you have to look at the systems as a whole rather than isolating an individual component.”

She also found that many people in Africa lost their lives, and children lost parents because they couldn’t access the right medications. “So it became a personal passion of mine to try to bridge this disparity in health care.”

As an MBA student, Chen enrolled in professor Jim Patell’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course, which teaches students how to look for practical solutions to the problems of the global poor. Her team decided to make an inexpensive incubator.

“We started to do research and found that around the world 4 million low-birth weight babies die within the first 28 days of life. Because they are so tiny they don’t have enough fat to regulate their body temperature,” she said.

Traditional incubators are the most common solution to this problem but cost up to $20,000 and require a constant supply of electricity, not available in many rural villages. The team set out to design one costing less than 1% of that cost, which would operate without electricity and would be portable and easy enough for a mother, a midwife, or a basically trained health care worker to use.

The Embrace infant warmer looks like a sleeping bag and contains a pouch with a phase-change material resembling wax that keeps the temperature at a constant 37 degrees centigrade. (It can also hook up to an electric heater.) The cost is $25 to $100.

“The mission of Embrace is to give all infants a chance at a healthy life. Our vision is to empower the disadvantaged, to improve their lives,” she said.

In 2010 Chen and her team moved to India, where they have focused on product development and testing. They did research with doctors, nurses, midwives, and mothers throughout India, as well as at the University of Utah and at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. A big milestone was signing a distribution partnership agreement with GE Healthcare in December 2010. The first unit was delivered in April to a doctor in India.

“Over the next year we plan to scale this throughout India, and we want to scale this globally as quickly as we can,” she said. Beyond the warmer, the company hopes to provide education materials on newborn health and create other products.

“A really important part for me of doing this work is empowering women to save their children. I’ve traveled to a lot of villages in India, and one thing I know for sure is that a woman, no matter how impoverished, not matter how poor, will go to any length to save her baby.”

Chen said along her journey she’s learned that life is about passion: “Find out what moves you, what excites you, and take the risk,” she advised students. And don’t be afraid to trust your intuition because as an entrepreneur, “You’ll never have perfect information, so at some point you just have to trust that voice in your head, in your gut, and go with it.”

She also urged the audience to think about how it could make the world a better place. “I think small steps can lead to really big change. What can we do to make the world just a little bit better?”

Also, think about your legacy, she said. Hers is a place where “babies no longer die from being cold, where people no longer die from preventable causes. And where every person has the ability to choose [his or her] own fate.”