‘These babies don’t have to die’
CLEMSON — Clemson University students who developed an incubator blanket that could help save infant lives in a country where improper warming methods are prevalent and lead to tens of thousands of deaths each year have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise startup money.
The “Incubasic” team has completed a prototype of the “Life Blanket,” and now the members are working to get it into Tanzania. The blanket is an individualized heating pad that regulates newborns’ body temperatures.
The team has a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo.com in hopes of raising $7,000 and has little more than a month to meet deadline, said John Henry Murdy, the student campaign manager.
“These babies don’t have to die,” Murdy said. “We have an award-winning prototype that we need to produce on a larger scale. But we need help with startup funds.”
Students hope the blanket can replace common but hazardous warming methods in Tanzania.
In many cases, babies are kept warm by heating entire rooms to 100 degrees. But such an environment turns the room into a petri dish for disease and infection. Officials at one hospital told the students that the rapid spread of infection in a hot room in 2010 claimed the lives of 30 infants, Murdy said. Only three survived.
The heat also makes work miserable for doctors and nurses. They are left feeling discouraged from giving at-risk infants the personalized care they need.
It’s even worse in other parts of the East African nation.
Health-care providers who lack the means to warm an entire ward fall back on whatever means they can to keep babies alive. Some use boiled water bottles, bundles of regular blankets or heat lamps designed for food or animals.
The Life Blanket is made of locally available materials and has a simple design that is easy to replicate. It is 90 percent cheaper than traditional incubators and can be easily repaired.
A temperature-monitoring thermistor regulates the ideal amount of heating for the blanket. It is accurate down to 0.1 degree Celsius.
Three LED lights display the temperature: blue for cold, green for in-the-range and red for too hot.
Students have been working intensively in Tanzania for four years and have been partnering with local administrators, doctors, nurses, technicians and students. They are seeking regulatory approval from the Tanzanian government.
“We are currently under fast-track review,” Murdy said. “We expect good news soon.”
With the startup funds, students would buy materials to build additional prototype blankets and to expand testing trials. They also are working to establish manufacturing and distribution centers in the country.
A portion of the proceeds would pay for the team’s engineers to travel to Tanzania to show local technicians and clinicians how to use, build and repair the blankets.
Several students have worked on the project. Incubasic brings together students from several different majors to give them experience in working across disciplines.
The lead engineers are two seniors: mechanical engineering major Justin Showghi of Clemson and bioengineering major Andrew Hargett of Simpsonville. The faculty adviser is Delphine Dean, the Gregg-Graniteville Associate Professor of bioengineering.
A group of students and faculty members met with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete in January 2012 in the capital, Dar Es Salaam.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science, said the work in Tanzania is providing students with an exemplary educational experience.
“The Life Blanket could save lives; that’s most important,” he said. “But the project is also engaging students’ passions. They are studying abroad, gaining experience in entrepreneurship and working in an interdisciplinary fashion. All these skills will be needed to solve the 21st century’s grand challenges.”
Martine LaBerge, chair of the bioengineering department, said Incubasic is part of a broader Clemson effort to improve lives in Tanzania. Students and faculty members are working to introduce several low-cost medical devices, including strips made from an ink-jet printer that could help diabetics test their blood sugar.
“Our students and faculty members are working hard to save lives,” she said. “I support their efforts. Service learning deepens students’ social consciousness and shows how technical expertise can be brought to bear on societal problems.”
Incubators that are standard in industrialized countries have been donated to Tanzanians, but Murdy said they are often left disappointed.
Incubators are high-tech, complex and expensive. Nearly half of the machinery, often costing $20,000-$40,000, arrives unusable. Maintenance and repair is also expensive and complicated.
Life Blanket won $2,000 in Clemson University’s “Social LaunchPad” competition and was a finalist in the SC Launchpad competition.
Students are continuing to improve the Life Blanket. They would like to add devices to monitor blood-oxygen levels and heart rate, an LCD screen to display the information and a new enclosure made from locally available materials.
“We are close to something big,” Murdy said. “All we need is your help.”