Grace Hsia, Founder of Warmilu, talks about her creative IncuBlanket a nonelectric warming blanket that helps preterm babies survive in hospitals in developing countries with limited resources.
Ann Arbor — Grace Hsia was born one month early, arriving the day after Christmas in 1989. She spent the next 11 days in St. John Hospital’s intensive care in Detroit. The doctors there had the equipment to keep her body warm and temperature stable.
But a lot of babies born prematurely around the world are not so lucky.
“It shocked me to learn that over 1 million infants die from hypothermia in resource-scarce settings. I thought to myself, ‘We can do something about this to help these babies,’ ” said Hsia, 27.
It’s no coincidence that what she’s working on involves saving babies. While a University of Michigan materials science engineering student, Hsia (pronounced “shaw”) developed the IncuBlanket for her senior project. Essentially, it’s a nonelectric warming blanket that helps preterm babies survive in hospitals worldwide lacking electricity or resources.
“I have a lot of admiration for these doctors and nurses,” Hsia said. “In the U.S., it’s like you have five different pieces of equipment to do this task. They have one. It might just be the stethoscope.”
Hsia’s five-pound blanket generates warmth without batteries or plugs. With the press of a disc, an InstaWarmer pack heats the blanket up to 102 degrees F in a minute. An infant can then be wrapped inside the layered sun gold cloth and stay warm up to eight hours. The blanket can also be reused 100 times.
In 2012, Hsia founded the company Warmilu — standing for “Warm. I love you.” — to turn the project into a mass-produced, lifesaving product.
A year later, Hsia ran a clinical trial in a hospital in Bangalore, India. The blanket safely warmed 20 infants for six hours, and she cleared the trial. Hsia then knew she had to pursue the project full-time.
In her new 2,000-square-foot facility in Ann Arbor, Hsia shows a 2017 certificate from Kenya’s Ministry of Health, declaring the IncluBlanket cleared the Pharmacy and Poisons Board (the equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) and could be sold in several African countries. (The blanket and pack costs $75-$150.)
Besides Kenya, Hsia estimates the blankets will save more than 10,500 infants this year in Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda. Warmilu also recently cleared the FDA’s Class I filing, which allows the company to sell the patented warming packs to adults in the U.S. The next step is to clear Class II, which will allow Hsia to fully accomplish what she set out to do: use the packs on infants.
With a quarter million dollars in investments — including $100,000 from former UM football player Dhani Jones — she’s positioning herself for when that day comes.
In October, Hsia will pitch AOL co-founder Steve Case as one of eight Rise of the Rest finalists vying for $100,000. She also won $72,000 from the Detroit WeWork Creator Awards in May and will compete at the Creator Awards Global Final in November in New York City. Not to mention, she was named a 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree in manufacturing.
“You’d be hard-pressed to meet someone who has more energy and passion. It just pours out of her,” said Ryan Gourley, director of the University of Michigan’s TechArb student venture accelerator, who met Hsia through an entrepreneur mentor program.
“When you meet her, you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is such a joyous person. I want to be around that, and see if I can be a part of whatever she’s working on, too.’ ”
Spreading the warmth
Growing up in Troy with a father who worked as a General Motors engineer, Hsia thought she’d pursue engineering, too.
“I knew I wanted to help people, but I thought it was going to mean I would be working at a national laboratory,” she said.
Now holding a master’s in entrepreneurship from UM, Hsia never expected to become an engineer and entrepreneur whose college invention would attract the interest of Doctors Without Borders and the world’s top medics.
Last week, she returned from Israel, where she presented the IncuBlanket at a World Health Organization gathering of 30 emergency medical professionals. She also gave blankets to the Israel Defense Force field hospital, which deploys to disaster zones.
The field hospital has electricity and incubators, but Hsia said they can fill quickly. If a more stable infant doesn’t require oxygen from an incubator but still needs warmth, the blanket serves as an alternative.
In May, Dr. Vika Ioffe, a pediatrician at Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, joined the all-women Warmilu team to offer her expertise. Ioffe has cared for infants in resource-scarce settings, including the Israeli desert, where temperatures plummet at night.
“I see no reason, with the current level of technology that we have, why that infant in the desert and resource-scarce setting cannot have access to warmth as in the most advanced hospital,” she said. “In 2017, there’s absolutely no reason why basic needs such as warmth cannot be provided to an infant.”
Ioffe became Warmilu’s medical director, she said, because of the company’s social mission “to provide the same standard of care to infants around the world no matter of parental income or the country’s GDP.”
Sewing for the kids
If she has jet lag from the Israel trip, it’s not apparent as Hsia scurries around her production space. She beams showing off a 3,500-pound radio frequency welder nicknamed “Bertha.”
Nearby, a smaller radiofrequency machine named “Marla” seals the warming packs, and there’s a huge vat filled with a gel substance that Hsia calls her “thermal buffer.”
“It limits the maximum temperature and keeps (the blanket) from overheating,” she said, explaining the nontoxic substance is used in automotive and manufacturing.
Hsia grabs a finished pack. At the moment, the room temperature substance is yellow, but as soon as she pushes the corner disc, it instantly transforms into a warm, white solution.
“You can see the warmth propagating there,” she said, pointing to the white spreading through the pack. “I think it’s still so cool.”
In an adjacent room, COO Larrea Young, 25, is bent over a sewing machine, stitching 13 layers.
An Indiana University fashion and textile design major, Young designed the blanket. She previously ran a design studio for children’s products in Ann Arbor. Young didn’t think she’d join a startup, but when Hsia approached her, she liked the idea of creating a product that “had more meaning.”
Young oversees two seamstresses and is working with a Metro Detroit manufacturer that will soon sew the blankets faster than the current 40 blanket-a-week pace. In light of the FDA clearance, Young added that they’re devising other medical purposes for the warming pack — “if you have menstrual cramps, labor and delivery pain, arthritis, anything that you’d need warmth for.”
They also want to break into the commercial space and develop uses for recreation to outdoor stadiums.
For now, she’s sewing to save lives. She mentions a Canadian doctor who’s interested in using the IncuBlanket to transport infants from a helicopter to emergency room.
“In the middle of winter,” Young said, “sometimes they’ll have up to negative 70 degrees wind chill, and you can’t expose an infant to that.”
Dr. Lawrence Fordjour, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York, is interested in testing the IncuBlanket when he travels to Uganda next month. Fordjour has also worked in Ghana, where he said about 90 percent of babies admitted to a neonatal ICU had hypothermia in one month.
“Even though it’s Africa and it’s hot, the staff doesn't have the equipment to keep the premature babies warm. And that’s a big issue,” he said, “so products that can sustain heat, that don’t require any sophisticated equipment that we have here in the U.S., that will definitely be a benefit in low-resource countries.”
Fordjour added that he’s searching for a warming product that’s user-friendly and can be reused. The IncuBlanket, he said, looks “very promising.”
“I’m very excited to try it,” he said.