CINCINNATI -- Most business startups begin as an effort to solve a real-life problem. Warmilu is trying to solve a life-or-death problem.
The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based company is one of three startups in the inaugural class of Cincinnati's Hillman Accelerator, which provides seed funding for tech startups with underrepresented founders.
Warmilu makes products that keep things warm but that don't use electricity to do it. Its initial product is a blanket that can be used to keep prematurely born infants warm, something that's especially needed in countries that don't have reliable sources of electricity.
"We took technology that's been around 60 years and found a way to safely limit the temperature with a proprietary thermal buffer," said co-founder Grace Hsia. "Think of it like a thermal battery. When you need warmth, you press a disc … that instantly generates warmth."
How did Warmilu get here?
Six years ago, Hsia learned that more than a million newborn infants worldwide die because the clinics into which they're born have no incubators. Providing them with an external source of heat can increase survival by 30 to 60 percent, she said.
Warmilu made its first prototype in 2012, she said, then tested the product in Bangalore, India, in 2013.
Last winter, Warmilu completed the Desai Accelerator at the University of Michigan. The company was chosen for the program mostly because of Hsia, said Angela Kujava, Desai's managing director.
"Anyone who works with startups or invests in them will tell you that you bet on the jockey, not the horse," Kujava said. "We look for founders that are enthusiastic and willing to do anything to push their company forward. That description fits Grace Hsia to a ‘T'.
"I've never met anybody who works so tirelessly on her company," she said. "She is consistently positive … and really, she is a force."
The founders were asked to apply to the Hillman Accelerator by former Cincinnati Bengal and Hillman co-founder Dhani Jones, whom they knew from the University of Michigan entrepreneurship ecosystem. They applied when they learned that Hillman could connect them with funding sources such as CincyTech, whom Hsia called one of the most successful startup funders in the Midwest, and with mentors from Procter & Gamble.
Where do they go from here?
After demo day at Hillman on Oct. 10, it's on to more presentations. The next day, they make a presentation at the "Rise of the Rest with Steve Case" competition, and in November at the WeWork Creator Awards.
Prize money is at stake in both those events. Since April, Warmilu has closed on $220,000 of a planned $1 million solicitation from investors, Hsia said. It has also used $70,000 in grants and $40,000 of co-founders' cash to fund the business.
"It's been tough at times," she said. "We bootstrapped until the end of 2016. That was the first year we took external seed funding."
Warmilu plans to use the money to semi-automate production, which will mean it can make up to a million blankets annually instead of 12,000.
Is it making money?
The company expects to sell between 7,000 and 10,000 units this year, Hsia said. They retail for $75 to $150 apiece depending on volume and where they are shipped. Hsia expects the company to break even by the end of 2018 or early 2019.
The company's already obtained Class I regulatory clearance for its product from the Food and Drug Administration and plans to pursue Class II, which will enable it to sell its infant warming blanket in countries in Southeast Asia and South America.
What's the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
"There are days that are extremely tough for me, mentally," she said. "That's when the team reminds me that we are here to save babies, and we have made so much progress."