An adage in tech funding is, “It's not what you know, it's who you know?” Aaron Horowitz (left) and Hannah Chung (in the bear suit on the right) boost that concept – and their visibility – by wearing bear suits resembling their teddy bear robot Jerry to conferences. It certainly raises their Klout score.
Networking and follow-up are paramount in almost all new ventures. Sproutel is a perfect example.
Up until very recently, funders often shied away from robotic start-up ventures for fear that a lot of money would be at risk for many years before any chance of ROI would occur. Those fears are often true but, in many instances, not for the reasons frequently described: time involved in concept development, prototype building, hardware development, product engineering to get to a reasonable price point, etc.
Less often, the reasons are to enhance the product – and particularly in relation to robotics start-ups, their AI – by responding to in-the-field reactions, needs and observations. Jerry the bear, by start-up Sproutel, is a case in point.
Aaron Horowitz, a presenter at the Robot Demo Lunch portion of a one-day event at MIT recently, eloquently described the plight of children diagnosed with life-long diseases. He and his team established Sproutel, a start-up focused on using technology to help children manage those diseases starting with diabetes. Sproutel uses a robot teddy bear, Jerry, plus games, stories and devices, to allow children to learn the skills needed to take care of themselves for the rest of their lives. Sproutel’s Jerry-bot lets the child teach it how to cope with all the complications of diabetes: carb counting, identifying symptoms, responding to hypoglycemic events, etc.
Horowitz and Chung, through initial funding and contacts from those people, were able to attend a 3,000 families-with-diabetes event where they gained insight into their needs and improved Sproutel’s product with that information. “The biggest thing we learned was that a story and personality were key to prolonged engagement with Jerry. This drove us to craft the narrative of Jerry training for the All Stars Games. Children are now tasked with helping Jerry train, learning how to master their diabetes in the process,” said Horowitz.
Of the resulting $300 diabetes product now for sale, author, lecturer and child mental health specialist Joyce Catlett said:
The interaction between a young child and the robotic bear – particularly as the child educates the bear about how to handle diabetes – not only builds independence in the child, it empowers them to assume more responsibilities for self-care. I also see it facilitating a more positive relationship between the child and the parent or primary care-giver. Additionally, I was impressed with the “bear’s” use of many of the principles of good child psychotherapy — learning through modeling and imitation.
“We have been working on the venture for 4 years; 2 years were spent at Northwestern University as a school project. It wasn't until 2 years ago that we incorporated with the broader vision of Sproutel – creating radically new interfaces that provide emotional context to the way we interact with the technology around us.” Sproutel recently gained endorsements and strategic partnerships that are propelling it forward with Jerry for diabetes and onward to providing a similar strategy and product for asthma.
Only in a city rich with foreign consulates, tech publications (such as MIT Technology Review), alumni and networking groups, and a significant technology cluster of successful tech business executives, technology transfer agencies, extraordinary universities (MIT, U of Boston, Harvard) and hundreds of high-tech companies, entrepreneurs and VCs, could you have a 1-day event like “Robots: From Imagination to Market.”
Sponsored by the Swissnex and the Boston Consulate of Switzerland, Robohub, a Swiss-based international online robotics news portal, and SwissLinkBoston, a networking platform of young professionals, the 1-day conference covered research, demonstrated start-up products, heard their pitches and success stories and had talks and panels about launching robotics start-ups.
Roboticists presenting, mingling and networking with the crowd at the event included Cynthia Breazeal from the MIT Media Lab, Miriam Bekkouche, from Indiegogo, Ben Einstein, from Bolt, Zivthan Dubrovsky, from Harvard's Wyss Institute and Dario Floreano, the director of the Swiss National Center for Robotics.