Ann Arbor’s Warmilu Hopes to Save Preemies With High-Tech Blankets
Grace Hsia, CEO of the Ann Arbor, MI-based med tech startup Warmilu, was a pre-term baby. Now, she and her company are on a mission to help premature babies in developing countries survive, with the help of high-tech blankets.
“Just over three years ago, we began as material science engineering students at the University of Michigan,” Hsia says. “We started the company because 1.2 million pre-term babies die of hypothermia each year. Many of the deaths are in resource-scarce areas where the morbidities could have been eliminated or reduced. I thought we could help make a change.”
So the Warmilu team talked to doctors and non-profit organizations in places like Kenya and India to find out how they could help. They discovered there was a need for an affordable, reusable, non-electric technology that could keep babies warm for hours, and the idea for the IncuBlanket was born.
The core technology used in Warmilu’s blankets has been around for decades, and is similar to what’s used in glove-warming packs that are popular in Michigan this time of year. The blankets contain a detachable pack filled with what Hsia describes as “phase-changing” materials, meaning they go from a liquid to a solid, or vice-versa. Although the specific makeup of those materials is proprietary, once they are activated by a button on the blanket they become liquid, a process that slowly emits stored energy in the form of heat. After the materials have cooled and returned to a solid state, the detachable pack inside the blanket can be “recharged” through boiling or microwaving. It then retains that energy—or heat—until the button is pushed again, whether it’s a day later or a year later.
Warmilu then realized it needed to find a non-toxic additive to the warming packs to keep the blankets at a steady temperature. After combing through databases of potential additives at the university and a bit of trial and error, Hsia hit on adding wax to stabilize the phase-changing materials in the IncuBlankets and keep the heat from going above 37.5 degrees Celsius. Adding wax also lengthened the amount of time the warmth lasts.
The next challenge faced by the Warmilu team after figuring out how to keep the blankets warm in environments where electricity might be scarce was to determine how to make money. Non-profits and hospitals in developing countries don’t have a lot of cash to spend on warming blankets, so Warmilu developed warming packs called the Instapack, for use and sale in wealthier parts of the world, that target people suffering from arthritis and joint pain.
“We recognized the need for the diversification of our revenue stream, but we wanted that diversification to be something that resonated with us,” Hsia says. “We talked to Baby Boomers and we realized there are a lot of people looking for non-pharmaceutical ways to treat pain. Plus, you need FDA clearance to sell infant warming blankets, but not to sell warming packs to adults with arthritis. That became our jumping-off point.”
Warmilu began selling the Instapack online last year and using the revenue to fund the further development of the IncuBlankets. The company ran pilot clinical trials at a teaching hospital in Bangalore in 2013 thanks to grants from Ann Arbor SPARK and the Michigan Medical Device Accelerator. Warmilu was able to show that the IncuBlanket could keep pre-term babies warm for three to five hours at a time during the clinical trials. (The company is currently preparing a formal paper that details the results of the testing in Bangalore.)
Hsia has also been working for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation-sponsored First Customer Program—helping startups analyze their business models, find gaps in the market, and chase down customer leads—and pouring part of her income back into Warmilu. The company, she says, is open to support from venture capitalists down the road, but currently prefers to find grants that allow it to continue bootstrapping.
In order to build buzz around its products on the cheap, Warmilu has participated in numerous business plan competitions and has been invited to startup conferences at places like MIT and Harvard. As it works to refine the IncuBlanket prototype, Warmilu has also been searching for a Michigan-based manufacturer to produce the Instapack. (A manufacturer in Indiana currently produces the packs.)
In 2015, Hsia says, the company plans to build strategic partnerships with doctors working in pain management and generate awareness through patient advocacy forums. Warmilu also plans to hire a sales team in the next year, a role the company’s six full-time employees have so far been taking turns filling. In addition, Warmilu is working with Steve Goldner of CureLauncher to get FDA clearance for the IncuBlanket. But no matter where Warmilu goes, Hsia says, its roots will remain in Ann Arbor.
“Ann Arbor is such a close ecosystem,” she says. “Everything needed to build a business is here. I see more of my peers that would have been sucked up by Google or Facebook choosing to stay in Ann Arbor because the energy is here.”