By Jenna Scatena
The Inventor: Jane Chen, 36
Your challenge: invent an incubator that costs less than 1 percent of what a state-of-the-art hospital incubator does -- a device affordable enough to be used in the developing world. If you succeed, your efforts will help save some of the estimated 15 million babies born prematurely every year.
This was the assignment Jane Chen and three classmates received as Stanford graduate students in 2007. None of the four was a doctor -- Chen was studying business, and her partners were engineers -- but after conducting preliminary research, they gamely packed their bags and moved to Bangalore, then traveled throughout India, interviewing mothers, midwives and doctors to perfect their prototype. "The essence of design is empathy," Chen says, "making something that fulfills the needs, desires and circumstances of the customers you're trying to serve. We couldn't have come up with a design sitting in Palo Alto."
The incubator would have to be portable and cleanable, include a viewing window and use an intuitive temperature gauge rather than a numerical thermometer (they settled on a red/green light indicator). After hundreds of iterations, the group produced the Embrace infant warmer, a sleeping-bag-like swaddle with an insertable pouch containing a waxy, heat-regulating substance. The material is heated by either hot water or 30 minutes of electrical charging and remains warm for up to six hours. To Chen's satisfaction, it has so far helped about 150,000 preterm infants in nations from Afghanistan to Haiti. "To know that we've helped spare so many women the worst kind of pain and aided babies in need -- there's no better feeling."