Toy designer Sproutel has renamed itself Empath Labs as it extends its products, originally developed to comfort kids with chronic illness, into clinical research.

The 11-year-old consumer electronics firm got its start making toys aimed at the type 1 diabetes community. Now, clinical research organizations (CRO) have started reaching out to request its stuffed animals for clinical trials, said CEO and co-founder Aaron Horowitz.

“Our eyes opened to pharmacological development, and we designed a new ‘Clinical Companion’ for retaining kids in a trial,” said Horowitz, adding that a study using its platform in the rare disease area recently got under way at a site in Israel.

As part of the research push, Empath Labs named trial experts Craig Lipset and Julie Ross, along with investor Mark Achler, to its board of directors. 

“I am thrilled to join the board of directors at Empath Labs as we build the future of robotics and game design for patient experience and data capture,” Lipset announced recently on LinkedIn.

As with clinical research in general, there are specific challenges involving children, such as anxiety over site visits. 

“These [challenges] are getting amplified as more kids enter trials,” Horowitz said. “It’s a real source of stress for families.”

His firm promises lower study drop-out rates and an improved platform for collecting patient data. A post-commercialization version, designed to boost treatment adherence, is another extension.

As for the new moniker, “Empath Labs” reflects its ethos as an experience studio that designs hand-in-hand with patients, Horowitz explained. 

“We develop products that cover the clinical continuum of pediatrics and get people to emotionally engage with their health,” he said.

The company says it has already shipped more than 125,000 of its furry companions. Signature offerings include Jerry the Bear, meant to help children with type 1 diabetes manage and understand their illness while fretting less over finger pricks and shots. 

Horowitz’s crew leveraged that experience to forge a partnership with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation around JDRF’s own furry companion for newly diagnosed children. Empath Labs enhanced the toy – dubbed Rufus, the Bear with Diabetes – with what it calls an “augmented reality play experience.”

A robot duck – best known for an association with insurance company Aflac – uses an app and augmented reality to mimic daily routines and distract children fighting cancer, as well as sickle cell disease.