Jerry the Bear: Hannah and Aaron

DFA Collaborative | Inside the Studio

Written by Safiya Mitchell

In August, I had the opportunity to chat with the co-founders of health care startup Sproutel — the makers of Jerry the Bear — Hannah Chung and Aaron Horowitz over video from their studio in Providence, Rhode Island. While this was certainly not the first interview that the dynamic duo has given about where they came from or where they’re headed, both of them couldn’t help but get nostalgic about their not-too-distant past.

Eager yet dissatisfied with his restrictive curriculum at college, Aaron decided to transfer to Northwestern University where he created his own major of Mechatronic User Interaction Design. In Introduction to Industrial Design, he met Hannah, a mechanical engineer, who soon introduced him to Design for America. They partnered up in 2009 on a project to answer the question, “How can we make learning about type 1 diabetes more fun for kids?” What started as an idea on a sticky note became Jerry, a smart stuffed bear that educates children on how to manage type 1 diabetes through play and continues to evolve and challenge kids to think about health and wellness.

Though Hannah and Aaron say that being in a healthcare start-up is no more difficult than being in any other start-up industry, their primary challenge has been understanding how to engage with and establish credibility within the medical community. They had to prove themselves: “We’re not just these crazy kids making teddy bears, but that we actually are crazy kids making teddy bears for kids to learn about their illness, and that we can actually do it.”

When starting a company (or working closely with anyone for that matter), conflict is unavoidable. Hannah and Aaron assert that the key to a strong partnership is simply communication. Working with a person means that when you have differences of opinions, you find a way to work it out amicably and in a way that does not leave either party bitter. Aaron explains, “Those couples that you see not fighting — they are actually the most dysfunctional. The one’s that fight all the time are probably pretty functional.”

The pair’s differences are exactly what keep them balanced. Aaron thinks big picture and long term while Hannah focuses on the details and what needs to be accomplished in the immediate future. “It’s sometimes like a zipper that comes together,” Hannah said. “We fill in gaps in each other’s thinking.” The lesson: however distinct your personalities are, it is most important to have a common goal. The goal for Hannah and Aaron has always been impact. It was this common purpose that led them to the Whitehouse in early August this year.

During the first-ever White House Demo Day, 32 innovative tech companies that promote diversity in tech were invited to Washington D.C. to share their work. Sproutel was one of 8 companies that received the opportunity to demo for President Obama himself. “It felt amazing to represent a cause that we really believe in,” said Hannah. During the demo, President Obama received a little surprise from Jerry himself: when he squeezed Jerry’s hand to see how the bear was feeling, Jerry wished the President a happy birthday, which coincided with the event.

In September, Sproutel launched a new general health and wellness education bear that teaches children about nutrition, exercise, and general mindfulness. There is even a Jerry with a food allergy. “The goal is to take everything learned from Jerry for type 1 diabetes and expand it to broader markets.” In the long term, Sproutel aims to expand Jerry’s world with new characters.

When asked to give advice for new graduates, Hannah and Aaron both brought up the air of uncertainty that many may feel at the end of college and urged seniors and post-graduates to find some comfort in this period. “It’s an opportunity to do something different!” Hannah exclaimed. Aaron stressed that the down time should be used for travel and having life experiences that aren’t directly tied to work — something he wishes he could have done himself. Most importantly, Hannah emphasized following no one’s path but your own. Aaron agreed: “I follow my gut 100% of the time, every time.”

Illustration by Allison Chen

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