Johansen and Olin Students: Preventing Newborn Hypothermia

Allison Basore ‘20

Elizabeth Johansen is a design consultant with her own firm, Spark Heath Design. She also advises a collaborative project with Olin’s Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE) course and Design that Matters, a non-profit design company, to make a device that prevents newborn hypothermia in district hospitals.


In 2015, 2.7M infants in developing countries died within a month of birth due to complications of prematurity, low birth weight, and infection. Providing at-risk newborns with a warm, clean environment could prevent over three-quarters of these deaths. Current warmers are too complex, too expensive to own and operate, and difficult to keep clean in these contexts. District hospitals need a warmer to treat newborns in intensive care rather than risk transport to crowded central facilities.


With these facts in mind, Elizabeth Johansen began working with Olin’s ADE students in 2016. Elizabeth introduced Design that Matters to Olin as a partner on a new project (Named Otter) focused on newborn health. The idea was to create a warming solution designed to prevent newborn hypothermia in district-level hospitals for all stakeholders involved.


In district-level hospitals, stakeholders include newborns, their families, doctors who prescribe treatment, nurses and midwives who operate warmers, service techs, and manufacturers. In addition, governments, NGOs, donors, distributors, and private hospitals who purchase equipment are important constituents. Over the course of the semesters, Elizabeth and Olin students visited Vietnam three times where they visited seven hospitals, both large and small in order to perform design research for these stakeholders. They wanted to see their users’ needs first hand and ask questions that would help with their designs, and had some memorable experiences while visiting. Elizabeth remembers one trip when her dedicated team went on a 9-hour drive on curvy mountain roads to visit a (very) rural hospital.


One of the major successes Elizabeth and Olin students have seen was in the discovery of an effective heating element. On one of their trips to Vietnam, they visited a manufacturer that would make the Otter once it was designed. The manufacturer was excited about the project, but worried about the labor cost of manually wiring in a heating element. The team left the trip with that challenge. Over the next summer, a few Olin students worked for Design that Matters to continue the Otter project. Those students discovered a heating element that acted like a sticker. Elizabeth calls it “...basically a screen-printed resistive element.” It uses a conductive ink that heats when current is applied. With this new design, the team was able to move toward the manufacturing stage much more quickly.


Another victory the team recently experienced was at the Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University. The Olin team was competing against professionals in a pitch competition where they ended up finishing in the top six! Elizabeth says, “It was really cool to see them (the Olin students) pull the project together and be able to present in a compelling way.”  

Currently, the project has a manufacturer-ready device that can be used by itself or with the FireFly (a separate newborn device made by Design that Matters).

You can read more from the team about their adventures on the ADE travel blog.

 Otter, Firefly, Otter+ Firefly: Otter can work independently or during jaundice treatment with Firefly phototherapy.


ADE team lead (center) gathering newborn warmer feedback at Yen Minh District Hospital, Vietnam.

 Work from ADE Fall 2017

Posted in: Making a Difference; A Broader World View