The Washington Post

This crowd-funding campaign would give every diabetic child a high-tech teddy bear

The founders of Sproutel, a start-up in Providence, R.I., want to raise $3 million dollars to give kids teddy bears. But their efforts are more than just warm and fuzzy: Jerry the Bear is a personal robot for children with Type 1 Diabetes, and he’s helped 250 of them come to terms with, learn about, and manage their chronic illness. In a move that even Sproutel’s founders call “incredibly audacious,” they’re aiming to put a bear in the hands of every U.S. child diagnosed with diabetes next year.

Cute, cuddly, and counting his carbs. Cute, cuddly, and counting his carbs.

Jerry the Bear, a friendly, soft, and diabetic teddy bear, turns managing the illness into an approachable game. To unlock chapters in Jerry's animated story book (which plays out on his touchscreen tummy), children have to take good care of him.

They can test his blood glucose levels by squeezing his fingers, administer insulin by "needle" or pump, and feed him by swiping food cards over his mouth. “We’ve seen four-year-olds getting over their fear of insulin injections,” Sproutel co-founder  Aaron Horowitz said, “but you also see them teaching themselves how to count their own carbs."

The animated stories (which document Jerry's adventures as he trains for the an Olympic-like competition) provide further education. “We talk about there being sugar friends and insulin friends,” co-founder Hannah Chung said, “having a party in your body, dancing with each other. And when you get an injection, it’s just so you can invite more insulin friends. The sugar and the insulin are both your friends, and they’re all happy—they only get sad when they don’t have partners to dance with.”

Jerry's animated adventures make staying healthy fun. Jerry's animated adventures make staying healthy fun.

But Jerry helps kids cope with their illness on an emotional level as well. Many of the first children to own Jerry would take him to school. Having a chronic illness can put children in an uncomfortable spotlight, the founders said, but explaining diabetes is much easier when it’s all about the bear.

The company’s crowd-funding campaign has already reached its initial goal of $20,000, which will help it produce another production run of bears, and move onto new projects. The next disease they hope to tackle is asthma. Sproutel will develop a toy, Horowitz said, that can be given to a child in the emergency room after the first asthma attack and “keep them from ever coming back again.”

By September, Horowitz said, company executives want to hit $3 million. At $299 a bear, he knows many families won’t be able to afford the toy. “We’re a small company, and we can’t bring the price down quickly enough,” he said, “but this is an interim solution.” But does he really expect to make it to $3 million, the cost Sproutel has calculated for donating a bear to every child diagnosed next year?

“We have a donation level that would allow one person to step in and cover the rest of the expenses,” Horowitz said, so he hopes that donors with deeper pockets will take interest when the project gets closer. “And hey,” he said, “there’s a crowd-funded bowl of potato salad at like $70,000 today. Anything is possible.”

Rachel Feltman runs The Post's Speaking of Science blog.

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