One of the things I love most about attending conferences is engaging with other people who are passionate about diabetes education and research and hearing about the interesting projects they’re working on. At AADE this year I had the opportunity to meet Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz, co-founders of Sproutel; creators of a very cute yet educational teddy bear named Jerry who “has” diabetes. When I saw how Jerry can teach kids and their families about type 1 diabetes, I was very taken with the furry fellow, and wanted to learn more.
Diabetes is a personal passion for Hannah. “My father’s family has had type 2 diabetes for many generations,” she said. “My great-grandmother had it. My grandmother and dad have it. Growing up, I knew what diabetes was but I didn’t know the complications of diabetes. When I was in sixth grade, my grandfather passed away from hypoglycemia. That was the first time I realized that diabetes is a serious disease. I realized when one of your family members has diabetes, it affects the whole family.”
While in college, Hannah co-founded a national student-led organization called Design for America (DFA), which focuses on using design to help solve local social problems through innovation. DFA’s first project theme was to design projects to help people living with diabetes, which was inspired by the 2009 Design Challenge issued by the DiabetesMine™ blog.
Hannah and the DFA team began researching the needs of children living with diabetes. “There is a gap between what the parents and children are being taught. Diabetes education for children is largely overlooked and the responsibility rests on the parents shoulders to disseminate the information to their kids,” she said. “We also noticed that the kids often carry around a plush animal, and we thought they might be interested in an interactive toy that could kind of replicate their diabetes experience. To us, they needed that emotional companion who gets what they’re going through.”
Using those insights, they came up with the concept of Jerry the Bear, an interactive robotic teddy bear that teaches kids about diabetes management. The idea won the Most Creative Idea prize in the DiabetesMine Design Challenge. A year later, Aaron joined the team and the project moved out of concept stage into implementation.
“We started making our first prototype which was really, really ugly,” Hannah said. “None of us knew how to make robotics or something with circuits at all. We stapled the fur on. It took us about three months to build this bulky fur thing. We tested the bear with a seven-year-old boy named Adam who has type 1 diabetes and he immediately started pointing out everything that was wrong with Jerry. We got a lot of feedback from him but what Adam really proved was the concept of Jerry the Bear; the idea excited children a lot.”
They sent a later prototype to a young girl named Kayla who had recently been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “Kayla avoided testing her blood sugar level because she was really scared of needles,” remembers Hannah. “So we sent one of our prototype bears to her. After playing with the bear for a few days, she was no longer afraid of testing her blood sugar level because by taking care of Jerry, she got rid of her fear of needles. That was a really powerful story for us because while kids loved Jerry, this proved what a valuable teaching and comforting tool Jerry could be.”
Since January 2012, the team has built 24 more prototypes and after testing them on about 300 children, they believe they finally have a keeper of a design. Jerry now features a color touchscreen computer on his belly called a “Glucopal” that displays a gaming adventure, following Jerry as he trains to be in the All Star Games. Children can squeeze Jerry’s paw to test his current blood glucose level, and then feed him food cards or give him a pretend insulin injection into one of the designated injection sites to manage his care. Jerry also has a USB port to receive software updates to keep his programming fresh.
“We’re targeting young kids and especially newly-diagnosed children,” said Hannah. “Our goal is not to make them independent in their own care but to make sure they learn their care regimen early so it will really impact them throughout their lives.”
For their first batch, the team is manufacturing 250 bears and has sold 170 bears so far. The electronics are made in China, and the bears will be assembled in Phoenix. “The great thing about that is, instead of going to China, we can just go to Arizona and work with the factory workers for quality control,” she said. “When we are building our bears in the factory, Aaron and I will go down and work with them so that all the bears are high quality and the way we want them to look and perform. We want to make sure we can really oversee that.” They anticipate their next batch will be 1,500 bears.
Along the way, Hannah and Aaron have added a third person to Jerry’s “family”; Andrew Berkowitz is VP of Engineering and handles building the bear’s software. “Andrew has type 1 diabetes,” Hannah said. “So now, we actually have a type 1 diabetes expert in the house which is pretty awesome.”
It is awesome just how much these three have accomplished in such a short time. The passion behind their mission shines through in their engaging creation. Hannah’s enthusiasm was definitely contagious at AADE! My thanks to her for sharing Jerry’s story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Hannah Chung received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
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