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Embrace: where philanthropy, innovation and entrepreneurship meet.

Discussion in 'Central & South Asia' started by Perceptron, Aug 9, 2012.

  1. Perceptron

    Perceptron BANNED

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    Embrace: where philanthropy, innovation and entrepreneurship meet

    In one of those incidents that are unbelievably inhuman, a five day old baby died in Jalandhar, Punjab, when the doctors took her out of an incubator because the baby’s parents could not pay Rs 200. In distant Bangalore, Jane Chen watched this on TV and could not hold back her tears; at the same time, she was angry at the wanton death of a baby for the lack of access to affordable and appropriate healthcare. Her prevailing feeling, however, was one of hope, because of her team’s work at Embrace. Hope that “one day, babies will no longer die for preventable causes,” thanks to innovations like the Embrace Infant Warmer.

    So why am I writing about Jane Chen today? Last week IG, as the editor of Forbes India is popularly known, told me about the latest cover story of Forbes featuring Ratan Tata. Apparently Tata, after his retirement, will concentrate on the work of the Tata trusts, and is likely to use the trusts to create new institutions like the Tatas have done with TIFR, TISS, IISc, etcetera. As IG and I discussed philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, among other things, I thought the Embrace story should be shared with a larger group.
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    Embrace’s story is where philanthropy, innovation and entrepreneurship meet. Four youngsters from Stanford University (two of them engineers Indian’s from IIT, Mumbai and IIT, Chennai) got together to start Embrace in 2007. They met during a class called “Design for extreme affordability” and the project assigned to them was to develop a baby incubator that costs less than 1% the cost of a traditional incubator. In Chen’s words, “The crux of innovation is really understanding who is your user or customer, and what the need is. We always thought of incubators as being used in big city hospitals and by trained care givers. We re-framed the problem to identify the user as a desperate parent in a remote village without access to a major hospital; the need was to give their baby a chance to survive. So the problem was no longer developing a cheaper incubator but to save babies’ lives with the new product. That’s what disruptive technology is all about: extending the user base to reach new types of customers. So with that, we developed Embrace.”

    Embrace started as a not-for-profit institution. The product has gone through numerous stages of intensive development and testing, primarily in private hospitals and hospitals run by charitable trusts. The company, along the way, has a few tie-ups with MNCs like GE to distribute the product

    It is a story of simultaneously what is right with India and, simultaneously, what is wrong.

    The IITs continue to produce some really bright innovative minds and when these minds get an opportunity, like they did in Stanford, the end result is Embrace. According to Rahul Panicker, co-founder, “There were lots of interesting activities happening in IIT Chennai when I was studying there. Professor Jhunjhunwala headed the TeNet group. I did my B Tech project under one of his colleagues. There was a sense that you can build technology solutions to problems in our country and actually build solutions for the world. And we had start-ups coming up out of IIT Madras trying to do this. That was inspiring.” Youngsters in India today, without any business background in the family, are not afraid to take risks and bold steps.

    While the initial development work for the incubators happened in USA, Embrace chose to establish its offices and manufacturing facilities in India. Why did they choose India? Says Chen, “We wanted to start in India because of the sheer magnitude of the problem here. 40% of all the world’s premature and low-birth-weight babies are born in India alone. There is also a rise in private healthcare; as such, we want to start in the private sector before moving to government, because it takes so much longer to get into the government system. Unfortunately, government clinics are in greatest need of our product.”

    India’s health care problems are gargantuan, despair-provoking. According to Chen, in the social sector, persistence and patience are absolutely necessary to make an impact. Patience is a virtue here. What are the challenges that Embrace faced in India? While there is widespread support, the litany of woes is very similar: bureaucracy, corruption at all levels, the time it takes to get things done.

    But what keeps the team going is not some misplaced idealism, but the satisfaction and inspiration they derive from the people around them whose lives they touch and change. In Chen’s words, “I think for me, inspiration comes in seeing there is desire for people to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger to improve their lives, to educate themselves. There’s this village just a couple hours outside of Bangalore; we do research there. The women there are eager to have jobs, educate their children, and have access to healthcare. That’s been very exciting personally to me in building this organisation because we are also creating job opportunities which will help to eliminate poverty.”

    When I first met the Embrace team, the first question that came to me was how would they meet their aspirations and material needs? This was a bunch of highly accomplished and very bright youngsters, who could have been earning millions in the largest corporations around the world. They are remarkably confident that money can be made whenever they want to, since there are enough opportunities around them given their skill sets. But beyond philanthropy and innovation, they also realised that there was a large canvas emerging. Why limit Embrace to one product? But to develop more products, one needs funds for R&D, for manpower, for testing, for manufacturing, for distribution.

    So Embrace started reorganizing itself last year. There is the original not-for-profit arm that owns the IPR on the incubator and royalties from the sale of the products which, along with philanthropic donations, will be used to distribute free infant warmers and other equipment to the poorest sections of the society. There is another company—Embrace Innovations—which has raised funds from social venture capitalists to manufacture and sell the infant warmer to the clinics that can afford to pay for them, and also to develop other new affordable and innovative healthcare equipment.

    Philanthropy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (PIE) all meet here. Suddenly I can see why the founders of Embrace are likely to stay with Embrace for a long time. More power and success to them.

    Meanwhile, who wants to embrace the PIE?