Managing Type 1 diabetes can be complicated even for adults, but for kids aged 3 to 7 the challenge can seem insurmountable. Chances are good that they don’t know anyone else with diabetes and don’t understand the critical differences among foods and the need to carefully balance carbohydrate intake with insulin injections. Traditionally, education about diabetes has been directed toward the parents of young children, leaving them to educate the children, but Sproutel, a two and a half year-old robotics company in Providence, Rhode Island is offering families a new tool to help kids understand their diabetes. His name is Jerry the Bear.
Jerry the Bear comes with a number of accessories that let kids feed him, check his blood and give him insulin.
Jerry is a welcoming plush toy with electronic sensors in his face and paws and a sophisticated processor and touch screen in his belly. Like his adolescent companions, he has Type 1 diabetes, so he needs to eat right and take insulin to stay healthy. While learning to take care of Jerry, kids learn to cope with their own disease. “Health educators can schedule visits and work with families, but Jerry is always there to be a companion, teacher, and even a role model for kids,” says Sproutel co-founder and CEO Aaron Horowitz. “Kids feed him plastic models of various foods — chicken, fruit, juice and the like — and the sensor in Jerry’s mouth recognizes their carb content and shows their effect on his blood glucose level on his belly screen. Kids can also administer insulin to control glucose levels and see the results. In the process, they develop knowledge and intuition about their own behaviors.”
Horowitz was studying mechanical engineering at Northwestern University in Chicago when he changed direction and created his own major in Mechatronics and User Interaction Design with robots. He began working on Jerry five years ago and incorporated the company with co-founder Hannah Chung in 2012. “Jerry includes a lot of technology,” says Horowitz, “but there’s a big social component for the kids. Taking care of Jerry gives them access to on-screen stories about Jerry’s challenges and successes as he trains for various sports activities, like climbing trees with his monkey friend. It can take six months to a year for kids to access all the stories, learning as they go. Once they’ve completed the series, they may or may not reread the stories, but either way they continue to care for Jerry, who becomes a sort of mascot for healthy behavior. We’re currently reaching about 2 percent of kids diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes every year. In addition to direct sales, we are running a campaign on Indiegogo to help make Jerry available to families that wouldn’t otherwise have access.”
One of the challenges Sproutel faced in bringing Jerry to market was developing the plastic case for the main processing unit (Jerry’s brain) and screen in his belly. “It had to fit the complex electronics inside, allow connection of the wiring harness to the 16 sensors, and integrate smoothly with Jerry’s plush fur. And it all had to be ready in time for Christmas of 2013,” says Horowitz. “You might think a twopart shell would be simple, but it wasn’t. We started out making SolidWorks CAD models, about 50 of them. Then we sent designs out for between 15 and 18 3D-printed prototypes that we could check for form and fit. Finally, when we were ready to go into production, we turned to Proto Labs for injectionmolded parts. I knew about Proto Labs because my roommates at Northwestern had created a company called SwipeSense and used Proto Labs to produce parts for their product.
Proto Labs' injection-molding service manufactured the case for the screen on Jerry's belly.
“To make sure that the designs we were developing would be moldable we used ProtoQuote®, Proto Labs’ free online pricing and design analysis software. We started uploading designs for moldability analysis while we were still making 3D-printed versions. 3D printing can tell you if a part fits, but can’t tell you if it is moldable, but ProtoQuote suggested several changes along the way that would make our part better and easier to mold. One example was avoiding heat sink as parts cooled. Our original designs included long, molded-in bosses used to connect the case halves. When ProtoQuote warned us that the Lustran ABS resin we were going to use could sink at those points, we considered a variety of options and ended up replacing the bosses with nylon bushings.”
“Once we had our final design, we placed an order for 300 of each part at Proto Labs and got our parts back in just 15 days. I have to admit to being nervous when we opened the box, but the parts were perfect. We had our electronics assembled in Rhode Island and final assembly done in Phoenix, and made our production deadline. The next project we are discussing will address 7 million kids with asthma, and we expect Proto Labs to help us the same way with that.”