Chapter 3: Spark

From Blank Page to Insight

Sometimes a single course can change a student’s life. That’s what happened to Rahul Panicker, Jane Chen, Linus Liang, and later Naganand Murty when they used design thinking methods to move from blank page to insight to action. They turned a routine class assignment into a real-life product: the Embrace Infant Warmer, an easy-to-use medical device that costs 99 percent less than a traditional baby incubator and has the potential to save millions of newborns in developing countries.

The course was Design for Extreme Affordability, almost universally referred to at the as simply “Extreme”—which pretty accurately describes both the pace and the class experience. Taught by Stanford business school professor Jim Patell and a faculty team, Extreme is a multidisciplinary melting pot in which students from departments all over the university come to the to develop solutions for daunting, real-world problems.

Their project was to research and design a low-cost infant incubator for use in the developing world. No one on the team knew much about the complications of premature birth, let alone medical product design for other countries. They were electrical engineers, computer scientists, and MBA students—not public health experts.

Their first step was to look outward for inspiration. They decided to meet in an unconventional place on campus: high up in a tree, outside the CoHo coffee house. From that lofty perch, the four students Googled the global infant mortality problem and found statistics that astonished them. Each year, about fifteen million premature and low-birth-weight babies are born. A million of them perish, often within twenty-four hours of birth. The biggest preventable cause of death? Hypothermia. “These babies are so tiny they don’t have enough fat to regulate their own body temperature,” says Jane Chen, the MBA on the team. “In fact, room temperature feels like freezing cold water to them.” In India, where nearly half of the world’s low-birth-weight babies are born, hospital incubators can provide consistent, life-saving heat during those crucial first days. But traditional incubators can also cost as much as $20,000—each.