Jerry the Bear Is Here to Help Kids With Type 1 Diabetes

Jerry the Bear is an incredible interactive game designed to educate young children with type 1 diabetes. And co-founder and CCO Hannah Chung insists that Jerry is, indeed, an interactive game.

“We call Jerry a game instead of a toy because there is more of a gaming component to it.”

Jerry the Bear is a stuffed bear with a touch screen in his belly. He is designed to walk kids through the experience of type 1 diabetes, talking to them about his own insulin levels, his symptoms, and his diabetes maintenance.

He began as a Design for America project at Northwestern University. Hannah and co-founder Aaron Horowitz attended Northwestern together, and Hannah is also a co-founder of Design for America. “It was the first project that came out of Design for America,” Hannah says. “The idea of Jerry the Bear came about spring of 2009, but we really started working on the first prototype in fall 2011. During school we made 3 prototypes, and since then we fell in love with him and wanted to kind of work on it full time.”

Hannah and Aaron left Chicago during their senior year to set up their company, Sproutel, in Providence, RI, after meeting several mentors there who could help get Jerry off the ground. They finished their last quarter at Northwestern via Skype so they could concentrate on their new company full time.

“Starting January 2012 till now we’ve made about 28 different prototypes so far. We’ve tested with about 350 kids, and you know when you test with kids they come up with more ideas, and we just did more and more and more. Our philosophy behind prototyping is ‘build often, test often.'”

“I read almost every book out there on diabetes and family care,” says Hannah. “But you know, it’s really hard to understand. Diabetes is not simple, even for parents dealing with diabetes it’s a lot of information to handle.”

The idea behind Jerry is to empathize with kids who have type 1 diabetes and help them adapt to and understand more about the illness. “Kids with diabetes are usually diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 7, which is the age that we’re targeting, but until they’re teenagers they can’t touch any of the medical equipment. Kids don’t get to touch what is going through their body or understand the process behind it. They get really confused and upset that they have to go through something that’s boring and painful all the time.”

Screenshot from www.jerrythebear.com: Jackie Reeve.
Screenshot from www.jerrythebear.com: Jackie Reeve.

Kids taking care of Jerry get to explore his treatment, helping them to conceptualize their own treatment. “There’s a module where you have to take care of Jerry–test his blood sugar level, give him insulin, and you can see how things like exercise translates to his blood sugar level.”

“The biggest goal of Jerry is to help kids easily communicate their symptoms,” Hannah says. “When Jerry’s feeling high or low he will speak his symptoms. ‘I feel tired.’ As you take care of Jerry he’ll say, ‘Thank you, you’re doing great!’ Lots of positive reinforcement. When Jerry needs insulin you have to hold him and give him his insulin pen. When you practice giving Jerry a shot with his insulin pen, you think, ‘Jerry’s doing this because he needs insulin, that’s why I need to have a shot, too.'”

“He is speaking all of the possible symptoms kids can experience so that kids will learn what language to use when they need help from their parents. They can use the same language as Jerry, like I’m dizzy, or my hands feel clammy. It’s helping them go through and build good behaviors early on.”

This is wonderful for very young, newly diagnosed children with type 1 diabetes. But Sproutel quickly learned that they needed to do more for the older kids. “I think it was up until prototype six or seven, Jerry was only about taking care of Jerry.” Prototypes were sent out to families along with cameras and journals to document how children played and interacted with him. “Newly diagnosed kids, kids who had diabetes less than 6 months, they loved Jerry. They would play with Jerry, like, three hours every single day. But for kids who had diabetes for longer than a year, it was too easy for them.”

That was when the team really set out to add a gaming element to challenge older kids. “The main objective of the game behind Jerry is to help Jerry win the All Star game. So Jerry has to go through different levels, learn different sports, and each level has three storybooks and a game. In order to unlock those levels you need to take care of Jerry really well. So we’re not screaming diabetes education just by playing with the bear, the kids are trying to help Jerry win the All Star game, and in that process you have to take care of Jerry.”

It was a challenge to cater a toy to their targeted age group. “Even though our target audience has only a four-year gap, it’s a really big knowledge gap for kids from three to seven. So we had to read a lot about early childhood development, a lot of education models. I did a lot of research on the education side, but also on the diabetes side. What do educators, parents, or doctors recommend that the parents teach if their kids are in this level?”

So, why focus on diabetes? “My whole father’s family has type 2 diabetes, so growing up it was close to me but I didn’t know the complications behind it. So when I was in sixth grade my grandfather passed away from hypoglycemia, and that was the first time I realized how serious diabetes is. And then my dad was shortly after diagnosed,” Hannah explains. “I was always interested in designing for health, but diabetes is more close to me because of my family. Jerry the Bear was the perfect opportunity for me to work on that.”

Co-founder Aaron had human growth hormone deficiency and needed daily injections during his high school years. “Even though he would say that he can’t compare himself to someone with type 1 diabetes, he did understand how stressful that was and how scared he was to get all of those needles all the time. So that’s where our passions came about, and we loved Jerry the Bear and wanted to continue.”

“What we realized as we brought in more team members to our group, people who are passionate about the issue bring a different energy.” Andrew Berkowitz, their VP of Engineering, was diagnosed with type 1 when he was 7 years old. “He was like, ‘I always wanted something like this, how can I make this even better for kids like that?’ We’ve worked with a lot of people who have a personal passion behind it.”

Screenshot from www.jerrythebear.com: Jackie Reeve.
Screenshot from www.jerrythebear.com: Jackie Reeve.

And how did Hannah Chung become interested in STEM herself? “Growing up I always loved math and science.” She read biographies of famous female chemists and scientists. “But I was also passionate about art. I thought design was all packaging, just outer stuff and no meat. So I tried my best to stay away from design in high school.

“But when I came to college I realized design is more than packaging. It’s a whole process which involves science, engineering, business, even art. It helped me focus and realize that I wanted to do mechanical engineering but also focus on emotional design. The psychology side of things.”

“I think the word engineering makes kids think of, like, cars and planes or trucks. But when you think about engineering it could be something like building toys or building a house. There are so many other ways to apply engineering, but I think the traditional concept of engineering is limited.” She feels a responsibility within her own generation to help show younger kids, especially girls, how big the world of STEM really is.

After tackling diabetes, Sproutel has plans to focus on other illnesses like asthma. The company has big plans for 2014. “Our first batch was 250 bears, and we sold out,” Hannah says. Their goal for 2014 is to sell 1500 bears. “I think 2014 will be very exciting! We have 4 camps who are using Jerry the bear in their curriculum.”

Jerry is currently only available in the United States, but Hannah hopes that will change. “We’ve been getting a lot of interest from the UK, Canada, and Central and South America from Mexico to Brazil. To go international you need to do more product testing, but we are pushing our best to make Jerry the bear sales internationally.”

At Thanksgiving, Jerry was backordered until at least April. But production has ramped up, and he is currently available for $249 on www.jerrythebear.com.

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Jackie Reeve is a Core Contributor and former Senior Editor at GeekMom. She's a librarian, a writer, and a quilt designer. She's wife to an Englishman and mom to a little geek girl, and she blogs about life and crafts at The Orange Room. Jackie's obsessed with cardigans and thinks Die Hard is the best Christmas movie there is.