Student startup used for infant care, therapy for joint disease

By Emilie Plesset, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 5, 2014

After being diagnosed with joint disease, Fay Lum-Lee, a 58-year-old resident of California, experienced a great deal of pain when moving throughout her day and spent much of her time in bed. However, Warmilu, an advanced therapeutic warming technology created by University graduates, reduced her pain and allowed her to continue driving and moving around with her family.

The Warmilu technology was originally created to prevent hypothermia in preterm babies and help them retain or increase body heat to improve their chance for survival. The technology is now also being used as a non-pharmacological treatment for adults with osteoarthritis or chronic joint pain.

Warmilu CEO Grace Hsia, a University alum, who completed her Master’s of Entrepreneurship in 2013, created the startup idea during her senior year as an undergraduate in the University’s Material Science and Engineering program. Hsia said the technology generates warmth instantly for three and a half to five hours. The device — which is incorporated into heating pads and blankets — also has safety features that limit the maximum temperature so it doesn’t burn or overheat the user.

“We’re spreading the warmth to save infant lives,” Hsia said. “But we’re also using warmth to improve the lives of folks here in the U.S.”

The startup is looking into applying the technology to a wearable band so that it can be applied to joint pain more directly. For people like Lum-Lee, this technology has subdued joint pain and improved movement.

“For a lot of these folks who have a chronic condition like the chronic joint condition, that is amazing, it’s liberating,” Hsia said. “That’s what we’re able to do: provide this liberation and continued mobility and freedom for these baby boomers.”

The startup began manufacturing the technology two years ago and made its first sale in the last quarter of 2013. Depending on shipping, a warming pack can cost between $30 and $40 and a blanket is about $10.

When Warmilu began in 2011, it was called M-Wrap. However, at the suggestion of a University professor, the company changed its name to better convey its vision of using warmth to transform lives around the world, and not just at the University.

“Parents love their child,” Hsia said. “Unfortunately their love is not enough to reduce the likelihood of death in these preterm infants. Warmth becomes the embodiment of the parent’s love for these infants. That’s why we’re called Warmilu: it stands for ‘I love you’ at the end of the name.”

To develop the technology, the Warmilu team tested out the warming blanket in India, where it positively improved the health of 20 infants. The organization is working to expand the use of their warming technology and is hoping to bring the blankets to Detroit area hospitals.

The Warmilu team used many of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and resources available in the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas such as the University School of Information and the Innovate Blue initiative in order to create the technology and put it on the market.

Engineering graduate student Alex Chen, Warmilu’s chief operating officer, said the technology is an example of how science and engineering principles can create positive change in the world.

“When you have a social venture, it means more than just making a product,” Hsia said. “With startups you’re addressing a problem with a potential product or solution that can be commercialized, but when you’re a social venture you’re looking at some social challenge that you’re looking to address. There is a problem there that has to deal with people.”

Hsia said social entrepreneurship involves listening to peoples’ challenges and understanding social issues.

“As a social entrepreneur what you find yourself doing is not only trying to develop a product, but also really understanding the social systems and the gaps in the system that are creating social challenges,” Hsia said. “You’ve got to have passion for it.”