How two Northwestern grads are making childhood illness easier to 'bear': BTN LiveBIG
Sproutel, a Rhode Island-based company founded by Northwestern University alums Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz, works in the space of children’s health. But unlike businesses designed to improve medicine or study side effects, Sproutel works to empower kids facing the indescribable challenges of disease by offering them a companion going through the same obstacles they are. Merging medicine with machinery, the company creates stuffed animal robots that help kids emotionally cope with their own struggles thanks to a furry companion.
The company’s first invention, Jerry the Bear, is called “the best friend for children with Type 1 diabetes.” Kids can monitor Jerry’s blood sugar, give the bear insulin shots, and count the carbs it intakes. A digital app allows kids to see the various tools that go into managing diabetes, and what the pantry of somebody with the disease should look like.
“The bear really empowers children, because it gives them this feeling of control,” Horowitz said. “They’re at a really young age, where their parents are taking care of all of their medical procedures. So, Jerry gives these kids some control and have them feel ownership of their diabetes.”
Earlier this year, Sproutel introduced its second creation, My Special Aflac Duck. Created for children on fighting cancer, the duck has the emotions and movement of a child undergoing treatment. Like with the bear, the duck has an app that allows kids to explore and understand what changes are happening to their bodies.
Partnering with the insurance company that has a longstanding commitment to researching and fighting pediatric cancer, Sproutel and Aflac are aiming to provide a duck to every American child newly diagnosed with cancer, at no cost to families. The toy is being tested at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, with plans to debut nationwide by the end of 2018.
“What we do is, we don’t approach a solution, we scope the problem together,” Chung said. “So, with Aflac, we did a deep dive for three months. Going to hospitals, talking to patients, speaking with over 50 people–kids, family members, caregivers, cancer specialists, doctors–to really understand what life is like at a hospital or at home, and what are some areas we can really help them.”
Children diagnosed with cancer face challenges and fears that many cannot fathom. The average length of pediatric cancer treatment in the U.S., spanning from initial diagnosis to cure or remission, is roughly three years.
“In that time, kids lose a sense of control and feel isolated,” Chung added. For as much as the support of family and friends can have a much-needed impact, young people often want an ally going through the same problems they face. Sproutel and Aflac see the duck as being that type of support.
The duck was unveiled to the public in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Chung said she wasn’t sure what type of reaction the toy would get from the technology world, but that the feedback the company received at CES was empowering and encouraging. My Special Aflac Duck won the show’s Tech for a Better World Innovation Award.
Horowitz said the company is looking to grow and provide support for more kids facing difficult health challenges, including food allergies, nutrition issues and asthma. All the while, Sproutel is seeking out corporate partners that will help fund research and allow the company to reach as many kids in need as possible.
“You can create robots that are cuddly, you can create technology that empowers people and has a specific social impact purpose,” Chung said. “There are ways for all people, regardless of their income level, to have this high-technology product in their hands. So, we give a lot of examples to how creative partnerships and creative business models and technology can look like.”