Grace Hsia, a University of Michigan graduate, is part of a team that created Warmilu, a blanket with insertable, reusable heat pouches that reach a certain temperature and provide steady heat without overheating or burning an infant. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — When Grace Hsia was born, she came a month earlier than expected, spending the first two weeks of her life in an intensive care unit at the hospital.
That’s why, when she was assigned to come up with a heat-related technology for her senior project while working on a materials science and engineering degree at the University of Michigan, she decided to focus on saving pre-term babies
“It gives me a sense of purpose,” said Hsia. “It was like my life had come full circle.”
During that project a teacher partnered Hsia randomly with fellow engineering students Alex Chen and Rachel Rademacher. It didn’t take long for them to agree on an idea, Rademacher says.
“We all three live in Michigan now and we have such cold temperatures here, so we were thinking of the idea of warmth and what our skills could do,” said Rademacher. “We came across data that showed that premature infants were the ones who struggled most with keeping heat and the numbers were just staggering.”
Being able to prevent hypothermia in infants that don’t receive post-natal care, could prevent as many as 42 percent of all newborn deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Since pre-term infants are at an even greater risk of hypothermia then full-term infants, the risk of death is even greater.
Once they got their grade and graduated, instead of ending the project the students formed a company called Warmilu, with the goal of saving lives and providing medical care to a host of individuals, not just infants.
Warmilu faced challenges
The students, now all 24, have created a blanket with insertable, reusable heat pouches that reach a certain temperature and provide steady heat for 3½ to 5 hours without overheating or burning an infant. Because the devices don’t require electricity and the heat pouches can be boiled and reused, they are more reliable than other heating methods like electric blankets or relying on the body heat of the infant’s mother.
“The main focus on the company is that we are really trying to help people with this product,” said Chen, who came to the University of Michigan four years ago as a transfer student from China. “The idea of it is to contribute to humans.”
They went through several iterations of the heat pack until they settled on a design that has two stages of heat, the first gets the pack up to temperature and second sustains the pack at that constant temperature.The process has taken more than three years, but now Hsia says they’ve completed clinical trials in a hospital setting in Bangalore, India and the packs were able to regulate body temperature for infants born between 31 and 38 weeks. Average human gestation is around 40 weeks.
They’ve already received orders for 30 devices and have fulfilled five of those orders, Hsia said. But the cost of production and the input of their advisors has led Warmilu’s team to re-evaluate their business plan.
Terry Cross spent 13 years working in Silicon Valley and invested in 63 different enterprises since 1962. He said when he met Hsia and learned of her product, he knew she could go places.
Cross was the one who suggested that Warmilu should focus on producing for the U.S. market first to increase business and then create a philanthropic arm to provide blankets to infants in developing countries.
“It was a major turnaround coming to this conclusion and it might have been the biggest pivot point she went through,” said Cross. “I think Grace has uncovered a huge market to serve worldwide and there is a big opportunity for someone to step in.”
Though Warmilu has faced challenges, Gerry Roston, a startup exective manager who has consulted with Hsia, says he has confidence in her ability to run a successful company.
“She’s an engaging person, she is enthusiastic and she has a great deal of passion for this,” said Roston. “I can see where somebody like that with a little nudging and guidance is going to have a positive impact on the world.”
'An embodiment of that love.'
Up to this point, Warmilu’s $45,000 in funding has come from the founders and through different entrepreneurial competitions with prize money. The next step, says Hsia, will be to open up to investors and explore as many markets as possible, including the home therapy market.
“Nursing homes, physical therapists and hospitals use these kind of devices a lot,” said Fred Brown, who was the head of new ventures at Ascension Heath Care of Michigan and consulted on the project. “If you get a cold pack as well, which is part of Grace’s patent, then this technology has ways to expand into new markets”
Hsia and her cohorts have no plans to leave the state for what might be traditionally considered the best places for startups.
“You see more and more business people and investors coming back to the region,” said Hsia. “It’s still not quite as big as maybe Silicon Valley or the East Coast, but there’s a warmth here and a Midwest practicality. A willingness to help each other out that you don’t see anywhere else.”
Hsia will be relying on that warmth to continue their goal of saving lives. The name of their company comes from the word “warmth” and the abbreviation for “I love you,” a name suggested by her University of Michigan engineering professor Jason Daida, shortly before he died last January from cancer.
“He thought ‘warm,’ because we are providing warmth and ‘a parents love,’ because some of these parents will walk for days to a hospital to get care for their child,” said Hsia. “But sadly love won’t always save an infant. You need medical care. The warming device becomes an embodiment of that love.”