Baby Warmer Inspired by NASA Spacesuits Hopes to Launch in America

Little Lotus/Embrace Innovations

Updated | A portable incubator that helps save the lives of babies in developing countries is being turned into a consumer product for American babies with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

The campaign, which starts Tuesday, will fund the development, refinement and material sourcing for Little Lotus, a consumer iteration of Embrace Warmers, lightweight portable incubators for preterm and low-weight newborns.

Embrace Warmers, first invented in 2007, look like miniature sleeping bags and use material originally designed for NASA spacesuits to release and retain heat. The new Little Lotus blankets, sleeping bags and swaddles, cloths to wrap babies in to help them sleep, are constructed using similar material to help regulate the temperatures of healthy babies by recycling body heat and releasing it when they get too hot.

Jane Chen, the co-founder and CEO of Embrace Innovations, founded Embrace in 2007 while completing her MBA at Stanford University, when she took a class to design an incubator that cost less than 1 percent of the price of a standard model. In the U.S., incubators cost around $20,000. Nearly 2 million babies die on their first day of life, and not being able to regulate temperature can be a contributing factor, for example, among preterm babies.

Developing countries also face other problems with standard-issue incubators. In many places, there is no electricity to power a traditional incubator, and in others there is no one trained to use one properly.

"We discovered that even in places where there were donated incubators, we'd often see them sitting in the corner of these hospitals, which was really strange because there were so many babies in these hospitals, but the incubators weren't being used," Chen says. In other places, mothers have no access to a health care facility with an incubator. Chen found that many of the babies who die in there first day are in isolated communities, far from hospitals and other health resources.

The Embrace Warmer is used in India, Nepal, Mexico, Uganda and Guatemala, and it was introduced into nine new Sub-Saharan African countries in 2014, after a campaign backed by the likes of Beyoncé Knowles. (President Barack Obama can also be counted among Embrace's fans.) Chen says 150,000 babies in 10 countries have been helped by the Embrace Warmer since it launched in 2008.

Chen has traveled all over the world, particularly around India, where 40 percent of preterm and low-weight babies are born. She moved back to the U.S. a year ago, and upon her return home, she noticed many of her friends were starting to have children, and they were interested in her product too.

"I kept hearing this concern, 'How do I know if my baby's too hot or too cold? I don't know if they're at the right temperature,' and I thought, This is something Embrace has a lot of experience with," says Chen.

Chen's former classmates at Stanford have been some of the product's testers. Parents who have tried Little Lotus said their babies have been sleeping better without heavy blankets, Chen says.

The public goal for the Kickstarter campaign, which runs until the end of May, is to raise $98,000, but Chen says true success would be raising more than $1 million, which would allow the company to finish development and testing and secure the baby-safe materials. Products will be available for sale on the Little Lotus website in the summer; each will cost around $150.

For every Little Lotus product sold on the market, one baby will be helped with an Embrace Warmer in a developing country—not too different than the 1-to-1 model of Toms shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to someone in need every time it sells a pair.

A child who was helped by the Embrace Warmer will make an appearance Tuesday during the Little Lotus launch in San Francisco. Nathan Long, now 3, was born in China and found abandoned in the street as a newborn, weighing less than 2 pounds. A Beijing orphanage that recently received a shipment of the warmers put Nathan in one for 30 days; all his first baby photos are in the warmer, Chen says. The orphanage said it was the first time a baby of Nathan's size survived there.

"It's living proof of what we do and why we do it," says Chen. "It's a really exciting and meaningful moment for us."

This article originally stated the price of Little Lotus products will be $200 when they go on sale this summer. It has been updated to the correct price of $150.