By Kim Kalunian, WPRO News
Jerry is not your average Teddy.
Jerry the Bear, a creation of Rhode Island-based Sproutel, is the brainchild of Aaron Horowitz and Hannah Chung, two 25-year-old Rhode Island transplants with a passion for helping kids navigate the sometimes-scary world of healthcare.
Horowitz and Chung started Sproutel as a school project at Northwestern University in their junior year.
The idea for Jerry was born out of personal experiences with managing chronic illness: Chung has a family history of type 2 diabetes, and Horowitz spent his youth self-injecting human growth hormone to compensate for a deficiency.
Horowitz said Jerry the Bear is aimed at changing the way children experience their healthcare. With their foundations of personal experience dealing with chronic illnesses, the pair reached out to families with children who were going through similar things.
What they found was that kids with type 1 diabetes were already treating their stuffed animals differently than other children.
“They’d ‘inject’ their teddy bears, they’d prick their fingers, they’d draw little insulin pumps on pieces of paper,” Horowitz said. “It kind of surprised us.”
So Horowitz and Chung set out to create a stuffed animal that was comforting and fun, but also educational.
The Jerry idea was initially supported by grants through Northwestern, then through accelerator programs and now through angel investors. Earlier this month Sproutel received nearly $150,000 in federal funding from the Small Business Innovation Research program.
Once the Sproutel project began to grow, Chung and Horowitz realized they needed to devote more time to their budding company, and moved to Rhode Island in 2012 to work on it full time. (That was their senior year at Northwestern and they spent time Skyping into class in order to graduate.)
Horowitz’s first introduction to Providence happened between his junior and senior year when he attended the week-long Dell’s Social Innovation Fellowship program, a joint venture between Dell and Brown.
“[I] was blown away by the wealth of creative talent here,” said Horowitz of Providence.
He and Chung then participated in the Betaspring accelerator program and started to grow their Providence roots.
Sproutel began selling Jerry the Bear in 2013. To date, they’ve sold 500 bears – that $150,000 worth of Jerries.
Jerry is a plush teddy bear that has 16 sensors sewn throughout this body with a screen in his tummy.
“The whole goal for children is to take care of their bears,” Horowitz explained.
Children can “feed” Jerry through sensors in his mouth, check his glucose levels and give him insulin “shots.” Each time they correctly take care of Jerry and cater to his needs, they unlock a series of 21 animated storybooks that play in his belly. In those videos, an animated Jerry is training for a big “all-star” game, and in each story, he travels around, meets up with friends, learns a new sport and practices a new diabetes skill.
Horowitz said the bears are a hit, and six months out, kids are still playing with them for upwards of an hour a week.
“Children are now articulating their symptoms, they’re talking about their diabetes which is something they weren’t doing before, and they’re thinking about [diabetes] like a superpower instead of something that holds them back,” Horowitz said.
This fall, Horowitz said they have some “big news” to announce, with new products and software becoming available.
The bear (with parts made in Rhode Island, Arizona and China) can be ordered online at JerrytheBear.com for $299, but it’s currently on backorder.
Horowitz said it’s an exciting time for Sproutel, and for him and Chung personally. He said being a young entrepreneur is a special experience.
“Being in that time of your life is really special because you can take risks that other people might not be able to take,” he said, noting that he doesn’t have a mortgage or kids of his own. He said other millennials should seize the opportunity to pursue their passions while they’re still young.
“I would encourage people to just dive in to find something that they’re incredibly passionate about, to know that there will be extreme highs and extreme lows and – I know that sounds incredibly cliché – but it’s true,” he said. “You just have to start doing it.”
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Do you know someone under 30 who is doing big things? If they have ties to Rhode Island, they could be highlighted in our next “630 Under 30!” Tell us about them — email email@example.com.