You have the world at your feet, armed with degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, with the chance to lead a plush life in a cushy job. Social entrepreneurship would probably be farthest away from your mind. But, that is exactly what Rahul Panicker, 34, did. He chose a path that wasn’t just off the beaten track, it was miles away from it. How does he explain his decision? “It’s probably a way of preempting my midlife crisis.” He’s only half joking. “Yes, there were more lucrative opportunities around. But, what was I saying if I went that way? That some of the most important problems facing the world should be left to people who don’t have more lucrative opportunities? Something about that didn’t sound right.”

What did sound right to him was the idea of developing healthcare technologies for the under-served. At Stanford’s d.school (the Institute of Design created by David Kelley) Panicker, Jane Chen, Linus Liang and Naganand Murthy turned a regular class assignment in 2007 into a product that today has touched the lives of 200,000 babies, in more than ten countries. Their project was to come up with a low-cost infant incubator to reduce the risk of death in preterm babies born into poverty. They came up with Embrace Nest, a portable infant warmer that doesn’t need a continuous power supply. According to the WHO, nearly four million premature babies die within the first four weeks. Neonatal hypothermia is the leading cause of death in such babies. While keeping a baby warm can prevent this and also help the baby gain much-needed weight, traditional incubators can cost up to $20,000. The Embrace warmer, at $300, is essentially like a small sleeping bag, which uses phase change materials to keep the babies at the ideal temperature of 37°C for up to six hours, without electricity.

“We launched the product in early 2012, after testing, clinical trials, approvals etc,” says Panicker, co-founder and president at Embrace Innovations. “We started by selling to the private healthcare sector, largely small hospitals in district and taluka-level towns. We had already been working with a few NGOs. A little over a year later, state governments started showing interest. What started as five units in Kerala became 50 units in Rajasthan, 500 in Karnataka and so on.”

While his PhD was in the interface of artificial intelligence and physics, Panicker also did a number of diverse things at Stanford. From emceeing shows during Diwali to working at a subatomic particle accelerator running experiments; from learning medical imaging to product design; from attending the Burning Man festival to a religious roundtable at Stanford, Panicker was exposed to a whole range of influences. He finished his PhD in 2007, but lack of funds meant Embrace couldn’t be started at that time. “I took up a job in Silicon Valley, working at a company called Infinera, designing ultra-high-speed communication systems, and working on Embrace on the side. We managed to raise some money, and I quit my job in early 2009.”

Rahul Panicker, Embrace Nest

Embrace started off as a non-profit organisation, but today it has a for-profit social enterprise arm as well, Embrace Innovations. “We started as a non-profit because, in the early years, we felt that private companies were looked at with suspicion by the public health world, and, given our cause, we were able to raise philanthropic capital. Along the way, we decided that to reach scale, we needed larger amounts of capital.” Balancing the financial and philanthropic missions was a challenge, but as Panicker reasons: “We won’t be able to provide units if we go out of business.”

The initial months were spent in learning, says Panicker. He travelled through 14 states, spending time in small towns villages, talking to every section of the target audience, trying to understand current practices around newborn care, current products used in these settings, how buying decisions were
made. Prototyping, finding reliable vendors to build their ideas and the absence of credible regulatory frameworks for medical devices were the challenges faced. “We finally chose to meet European regulatory standards, so that we were no longer stuck with moral dilemmas.”

Panicker has been included in the MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 List, an honour he hopes will “inspire more young people to start taking on some big challenges, and start building some cool shit”. Today Embrace is on the cusp of developing a new device: Embrace Angel — to do monitoring and diagnosis. “If I’d taken the traditional path, my degrees would have stood me in good stead, but I’d have failed my education.”