Jerry the Bear comes with a backpack, food cards, an insulin pen, interactive storybooks, injection sites, and tickle spots.

Beyond the day-to-day inconveniences and physical struggles of a diabetes diagnosis, children with the disease often face the social stigma and anxiety of being different from their peers.  

In response, a startup company came up with the idea of using a stuffed teddy bear as a companion and interactive health education tool for children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Through the use of animated books and sensors installed using an Android tablet in Sproutel’s Jerry the Bear, children can learn more about their condition by acting as caregivers themselves, feeding food to the bear, administering insulin, and monitoring his blood glucose levels.  

According to the American Diabetes Association, about 208,000 Americans younger than 20 years old have been diagnosed with diabetes. Toy companies such as American Girl and Barbie have responded to the epidemic by creating educational products such as diabetes care kits and pump cases for their dolls.

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Speaking at Digitas Health LifeBrands’ m.2016 mobile innovation thought leadership platform in New York last week, Sproutel co-founder and CEO Aaron Horowitz said Jerry the Bear is the product of “one part passion, one part problem.” Diagnosed with human growth hormone deficiency when he was 12 years old, Horowitz experienced firsthand how it felt to self-administer injections every day for five years.

“It gave me a lot of understanding going through the slew of doctors and healthcare providers at a young age what the state of the system is like, and how much room there is to improve the experience, especially for kids,” said Horowitz.

Jerry the Bear is available in 25% of pediatric endocrinologists’ offices in the U.S. and has been sold to 4% of newly diagnosed children.

It all started in 2009 when Horowitz and Sproutel co-founder Hannah Chung made a submission to a Diabetes Mine contest calling for design ideas to improve the lives of people with diabetes. After they visited the homes of families with kids diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, they saw that kids were already taking care of their stuffed animals in the same nurturing way their parents were taking care of them.

“Some of these kids were even drawing up fake medical devices they would staple to the fur of their stuffed animal,” said Horowitz. “We saw that behavior and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if that teddy could talk to them, educate them, and be their friend with type 1 diabetes?’”

With approximately $1 million raised from investors and a National Institute of Health grant, Horowitz and Chung created 29 prototypes and tested them with more than 350 children with diabetes until they came up with the final product. In the process, the two spent a lot of time translating medical jargon to “what we’re hearing our users say,” said Horowitz.

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Those in the healthcare industry, including doctors, hospitals, and diabetes group, initially thought they were “crazy,” recalled Horowitz. “We had doctors telling us that this was a bad idea, stupid, that we should be teaching their parents and there’s no benefit of teaching the child at all about their illness,” he said. “We’re not going to necessarily teach them how to calculate their carb-to-insulin ratio, but we can teach them what diabetes is, how to process it, how to better deal with it.”  

Fast-forward to 2016 and Jerry the Bear is now available in 25% of pediatric endocrinologists’ offices in the U.S. and has been sold to 4% of newly diagnosed children, according to Horowitz.

“What kids really say is that Jerry gives them a voice to talk about their diabetes,” said Horowitz. “[For parents], having a tool like Jerry takes so much of the stress out of diabetes — just the fact that it’s a teddy bear makes it a little bit playful. When they talk about the child’s diabetes, it’s, ‘How’s Jerry feeling? Does Jerry need a shot? Let’s check Jerry’s blood sugar level.’”

Sproutel co-founder and CEO Aaron Horowitz hopes to use mobile technology to educate kids about their health.

To reach broader audiences, the company is partnering with nonprofit organizations, innovation firms, and entertainment companies. Horowitz declined to reveal the details of his partnerships but cited American Girl as an example of an established entertainment company leveraging its popularity among kids to impact health. There has been interest from some drugmakers and medical device companies as well, but Horowitz said that they face concerns around regulatory questions.

“We’re trying to work with brands that have a lot of value and then leverage those existing brands to tell a story about healthcare so we don’t have to create a new character every time,” said Horowitz.

See also: Fit4D expands diabetes program with Healthfirst

Moving forward, the company plans to use mobile technology to educate kids in areas such as general nutrition, exercise, food allergies, and behavioral health conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

When it comes to innovation, Horowitz said the industry needs to look beyond existing tools and think about the “idealized experience.”  

“What is the experience that we want our user, our consumer, to have in a future with no constraints?” he said. “The spinouts of that conversation might be shelved until a magic leap comes out…or they could be ideas that you might be able to build the correct technology building blocks.”