Lack of warmth is a real issue for millions of people around the globe. For infants born preterm, the World Health Organization (WHO) says the inability to keep warm on their own can lead to health problems and even death.
Enter: Grace Hsia and her startup, Warmilu, which has developed a reusable heat pack that generates warmth in seconds.
"I started as a material science engineer at the University of Michigan," Hsia told Circa. "My team and I, after speaking to over 200 doctors and nurses, we developed a non-electric infant warming pack."
An estimated 15 million babies are born preterm each year, per WHO research. And every year, WHO says that over 1 million of those infants die due to complications resulting from preterm birth, including hypothermia.
"Warmth is a basic part of thermal care for neonate early survival. Within those first 48 hours it's really critical to make sure the infant is kept properly warm," Hsia explained.
Cool. So how does it actually work?
Infants can’t shiver, which is our usual mechanism for keeping warm. Instead, they burn fat. If too much is burned off, though, it can lead to developmental problems and higher risk of infection. Warmilu’s product, which is FDA-approved for adult and infant use, can generate warmth for 5-8 hours at safe temperatures.
"What's actually happening is that we have a high concentration of the phase-change material to water and that creates a supersaturated solution," Hsia explained.
The material in the pack is in a liquid state. When you press the disc in the corner, it quickly morphs from clear liquid to solid. As it changes, it begins generating warmth.
"So, we're able to provide instant, non-electric warmth," she said. "There’s no batteries, there’s no wires in this."
"This is not magic. This is very advanced material science engineering that seems like magic."
When you’re ready to take the pack out, boiling it in a pot of water will help it go back to a room-temperature, liquid state.
"This is not magic," Hsai said, adding that's the comment she hears often when people first see the pack warm up. "This is very advanced material science engineering that seems like magic."
Where are the packs and blankets sold?
From idea to market, Warmilu produces everything in-house in its Detroit, Mich., facilities. "We do all of the production. We cut and sew all of our own blanket materials... We do all the welding and the manufacturing of the packs. And we make all of our own blankets," the founder said.
The pack and blanket cost $100-115, depending on size. Warmilu sells them directly to medical device distributors, who serve communities in resource-scarce areas such as Kenya, Somalia, Rwanda and Burundi.
"The reason why we do work in resource-scarce settings, this is where 75 percent of those deaths take place."
"The reason why we do work in resource-scarce settings, this is where 75 percent of those deaths take place," Hsia explained to Circa about their decision to primarily work in Africa as the startup gets off the ground.
In developing countries, where access to incubators or basic care is limited, thermal care solutions could help prevent early deaths. Hsia said being able to utilize the blankets can be a real game changer, since having access to warmth "can translate, it depends on the infant, but it can translate to an increased survival rate of anywhere from 40 to 60 percent, according to the clinical literature."
What started as a project on a shoestring budget, Warmilu is now on track to saving 10,000 infant lives. "It’s really rewarding to not just be able to make the innovation, but also to see it being used on patients," she said.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing...
In a field where men still outnumber women by a fair amount – women hold a mere 24 percent of all STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce – Hsia says she's certainly faced her share of criticism and at times felt underestimated.
"And it's like, I am the boss."
"Sometimes you'll be on the phone with a supplier and they'll say, 'Here let me talk to your boss.' And it's like, I am the boss," Hsia described a not-so-uncommon interaction. "And they're like, 'Let me talk to your production guy.' I said, 'I am managing productions.'"
Still, she's taken obstacles in stride. And she's been recognized for her innovative work. Most recently Hsia was awared the WeWork Creator award in January.
"As a female in stem really know your numbers and don't be afraid to break that out at the right point," she said. "Take this as an opportunity to like outshine people."
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