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A robot playmate for children with newly diagnosed chronic illnesses

Sproutel, co-founded by Aaron Horowitz, creates products that promote behavior change and provide emotional support for children.

Two children holding My Special Aflac Duck, a social robot for children with cancer and sickle cell disease that was designed by the founders of Sproutel, a health tech company in Providence, R.I.Sproutel

For Aaron Horowitz, growing up wasn’t exactly easy. He was diagnosed with Human Growth Hormone Deficiency, which means his body could not produce the hormone he needed to grow.

For five years throughout his childhood, he said he self-administered daily injections, sat in countless doctor’s offices, and listened to medical staff talking to his parents as if he wasn’t even in the room.

There was this “assumption that I couldn’t possibly understand my own health,” Horowitz said. And it’s what drove him to empower children with illnesses through education and “critical comfort,” which he said would give them a “feeling that they are not alone.”


About a decade ago, Horowitz observed how children with type 1 diabetes were caring for their fluffy stuffed animals as if they also had the same illness. It was his first “aha” moment, and he designed an interactive teddy bear for children living with type 1 diabetes.

That’s when he co-founded Sproutel, a health tech and research company that designs toys to help children with newly diagnosed chronic illnesses understand and cope through play.

Aaron Horowitz co-founded Sproutel, a health tech and research company in Providence, R.I., that designs toys to help children with newly diagnosed chronic illnesses understand and cope through play.Sproutel

Q: What is Sproutel and what kinds of products is the company developing?

Horowitz: Sproutel creates products that promote behavior change and provide emotional support for children. We leverage a unique patient-centered, empathy-driven design process to co-create our products hand-in-hand with end users. We’re best known for a line of interactive companions for children with illness.

Explain the Purrble Companion, one of Sproutel’s products. What does it do for rowdy children?

The Purrble Companion is a toy that helps people of all ages find calm. The product is based on the simple premise that when you calm something else down, you help calm yourself down. The Purrble Companion has a heartbeat that you can actually feel. When you pick up your Purrble Companion, their heart beats rapidly, and as you pet and hold your companion their heartbeat slows until it becomes a soothing purr.


If you shake your Purrble companion, or turn them upside down, their heartbeat will increase again. This facilitates a unique kind of mindful play that can help users find calm.

How has the Purrble Companion helped children during the pandemic?

We launched the Purrble Companion in 2020, when children were experiencing an immense amount of stress. Children across the country found comfort by using their Purrble Companion to help settle down for virtual schooling, or to bounce back from big emotions. For so many families the Purrble Companion has been a critical resource.

Where are your products typically used?

Families most often use the Purrble Companion at home to find calm, avoid meltdowns, and even to get ready for bed. The Purrble Companion costs $59.99 (It’s available at Purrble.com and on Amazon).

What about “My Special Aflac Duck, which was named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in 2019?”

We teamed up with Aflac (the insurance company) to develop My Special Aflac Duck, which is a social robot for children with cancer and sickle cell disease. My Special Aflac Duck allows children to engage in medical play, to care for their ducks in the same way they are cared for throughout their chemotherapy. A key feature is a series of feeling cards that allow children to communicate their feelings to their families and doctors. (It also won the People’s Choice Award at South by Southwest and the Best In Show Award at CES.)


This year we worked with Aflac to launch another version of My Special Aflac Duck for children with sickle cell that helps them cope with pain crises, and re-enforces care routines in the home. The duck comes along with an app-based virtual world where children can create music, make paintings, and engage in additional medical play features through augmented reality. Aflac began distributing these My Special Aflac Ducks to kids with sickle cell in February and the results were amazing.

What do your sales for My Special Aflac Duck look like?

More than 1,000 were ordered in the first week, and they continue to receive steady orders. All told, between children with cancer and sickle cell, more than 16,000 My Special Aflac Ducks have been distributed, free of charge, in the United States, Japan (where Aflac does 70 percent of its business) and Northern Ireland, where the company has a technology office. Locally, we’ve distributed ducks to 435 children in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Your Rufus the Bear mascot is a partnership with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. And it’s reaching newly diagnosed child with T1D at no cost in the US. How is that possible?

In 2013 we launched our first product, Jerry the Bear, for children with type 1 diabetes. While we saw great success, in 2021, there was an opportunity to partner with the JDRF to significantly expand our reach. We worked with the JDRF to incorporate our core technology into their mascot, Rufus, the Bear with Diabetes. Rufus the Bear is a part of the JDRF’s Bag of Hope program, an incredible resource toolkit provided to newly diagnosed children at no cost to families. As of 2021, each of these bags now includes a version of Rufus the Bear equipped with our core technology to provide comfort and interactive education for children.


A child holding the Purrble Companion, which is a toy that helps people of all ages find calmness. Sproutel

Have any Sproutel products gone through research studies to test effectiveness?

We conducted research on both the Purrble Companion and My Special Aflac Duck.

In a study with 20 families who use the Purrble Companion, 95 percent of families reported that the Purrble Companion helped their child calm down when they needed to.

In a pilot feasibility study with My Special Aflac Duck, parents and children reported that the duck helped reduce distress in an in-patient setting. Aflac has also commissioned a multi-year, multi-hospital efficacy study on My Special Aflac Duck, which it hopes to have completed by the first quarter of 2023.

What’s next?

Our focus this year is scaling the reach of the Purrble Companion and developing our next product — a tool to recruit, engage, and retain patients in pediatric clinical trials. In a recent analysis of pediatric clinical trials it was shown that more than 40 percent of trials were never finished, or that they were completed but never published. We are solving this problem, helping companies develop more treatments for children with illness, faster.


What makes Sproutel unique is our methodology for behavior change and emotional support. With our next product for pediatric clinical trials, we’re incredibly excited about applying this methodology to solve a bottleneck in science, and to accelerate the discovery of new therapies for children.

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at alexa.gagosz@globe.com.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.