Premature babies often spend the first weeks of their lives in incubators – a necessary precaution to prevent infection and keep them stable, but one that leaves both parents and infants feeling isolated and stressed. Now, designer Camilo Anabalon and engineer Raphael Lang are reducing that isolation and promoting neonatal health using BabyBe, which brings the mother’s heartbeat, voice, and breathing right into the incubator.
Conveying a Mother’s Care with a Remote Device
To use the system, the mother or other caregiver holds a small “turtle” device to her chest. Without looking too much like a baby (what Anabalon calls “a situation we want to avoid”), the device gives the mother something with a soft surface and enough weight to encourage the kind of interaction she would have with the baby itself.
Sensors in the turtle pick up the mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and other sounds. The turtle relays this information wirelessly to an electronic control module, which conveys the sounds to the baby inside the incubator while using a pump to gently inflate and deflate the baby’s mattress in rhythm with the mother’s breathing.
Reducing Isolation for Premature Babies
While working with the Fraunhofer Institute, Anabalon had the opportunity to observe premature babies in the neonatology ward. He noticed how remote the babies seemed from both their parents and the doctors. While the doctors could see all the information they needed from screens in another room, Anabalon says, “Outside all of those [incubator] rooms were the mothers and fathers, waiting for a chance to be with the baby.”
“The level of isolation of the baby was unbelievable.”
Replicating Physical Interactions in the Incubator Environment
Anabalon wondered whether contact with its mother would help a baby’s health, so he started researching skin-to-skin contact, bonding attachment, and brain development. His hunch was correct: “It’s been proven that the relationship — the physical contact between mother and baby — is important for both of them.” In fact, “That bonding is so fundamental that it affects the whole relationship from that point on between the mother or the father and their baby.”
That realization raised a crucial design question: How do you bring the benefits of human contact to tiny babies who also need the stable, sterile environment of the incubator? Anabalon wanted to take the physical manifestations of the parents and replicate them in real time for the baby inside the incubator. That was the genesis of BabyBe.
Turning an Idea into a Real Product
By early 2013, Anabalon was back in Chile, using funds from the StartupChile business incubator to develop better prototypes for the inflatable mattress and other components of the system. He then joined the HAX hardware accelerator, which allowed him to go to Shenzhen, China to develop a final prototype. Both organizations helped the BabyBe team not only with money, but by mentoring them on a range of business and technical topics. “I cannot tell you how helpful they have been to us,” Anabalon says.
The team started using Fusion 360 around the end of 2014. They had been using other programs, but Anabalon says that, “As an industrial designer, [Fusion 360] made a lot more sense in my design process.” Its online collaboration capability is especially important given that Anabalon has spent most of the past few years either in Chile or Britain (where he now lives), while Lang spends most of his time in Stuttgart and Barcelona.
Before moving to Fusion 360, the duo encountered problems passing designs back and forth: when they tried to translate from one software to another, Lang’s designs for cabling, PCBs, and other electronic elements wouldn’t fit exactly right with Anabalon’s overall designs. It was annoying enough when tolerances were slightly off for the two of them; it became prohibitive when they began rapid iterations of designs for manufacturing.
Fusion 360 took those worries away. As Anabalon explains, the ability for the two designers to perform live reviews — even while on different continents — and resolve any issues directly in the software “changed the whole game for us.”
Certification, Validation, and Production
Meanwhile, there has been a mountain of work to do on the business side as well, including investor pitches and other fundraising efforts. Bringing a medical product to market is unique process; during the past couple of years, Anabalon and Lang have not only applied for the CE certification common for consumer electronics, but also funded and implemented clinical trials to establish scientific evidence that the BabyBe product does no harm and has real benefits for the health of babies and parents.
The two-year process of trials recently finished in Chile has validated the safety of the device as well as its impact on neonatal health. Infants who used the device had a slower breathing rate, indicating that they were calmer and less stressed. Even better, they gained weight more quickly, which Anabalon calls “the main indicator that everything is going right.”
Anecdotal reactions from parents have also been highly positive. “When they try it,” Anabalon says, “they realize there’s another way to be with their babies when they cannot be with them physically. There’s a powerful reaction. It’s very nice.”
The founders plan to have the first production units of BabyBe in hospitals by July 2016. (Anabalon laughs again when he notes that this will be “the first time in almost four and a half years that we actually make money instead of spending it.”) Then they will raise still more funds so they can begin the process of FDA certification in 2017.
For now, their focus is on making this one product a reality. They have bigger plans for the long run, though. “We have a lot of ideas for what else we can do to support premature babies,” Anabalon says.
Using New Collaboration Methods to Solve Problems in New Ways
“10 years ago, this process wouldn’t have been possible at all,” he adds. Achieving the kind of deep collaboration that he has with Lang while working remotely would have been out of reach, especially for such a complex hardware product.
Now, though, the two men are not only improving the health of premature babies and their parents, they’re also riding a wave that is transforming hardware design. “You can feel the whole industry changing, and it’s changing in a very good way.”