Aaron Horowitz will never forget the hardships of childhood illness. Diagnosed with a human-growth-hormone deficiency at age 12, the Yorktown, NY, native often felt isolated and afraid.
“It’s really scary when you go through these things as a kid and you might not really understand the full scope of everything that’s happening,” Horowitz, now 28, tells The Post of his medical condition, which he has since overcome. “No kid should ever have to have that feeling.”
Today, the Providence, RI-based Horowitz is working to deliver on that promise as co-founder and CEO of Sproutel, a groundbreaking tech company that makes interactive toy robots aimed at comforting seriously ill children.
Horowitz says he always had a penchant for building, and in college he discovered robotics, learning animatronics and electronics.
Aaron Horowitz hands out a My Special Aflac Duck, an interactive toy robot.Palmetto Health
When a class project put him in touch with children who had Type 1 diabetes, he noticed that many of the young patients played doctor by caring for their favorite stuffed animals.
The experience sparked the idea for Jerry the Bear, an adorable robot teddy that simulates symptoms of Type 1 diabetes — including fluctuating blood sugar, bathroom urgency and feelings of dizziness. It’s designed so kids can better understand their own health and help normalize their experiences.
“Children use play to act out everything that’s happening in their lives,” Horowitz says. “[You] form these bonds with toys that you really end up carrying for the rest of your life.”
For his company’s latest creation, Horowitz teamed with insurance giant Aflac to develop My Special Aflac Duck, an interactive bird for kids who are undergoing cancer treatment.
The downy creature quacks and is lined with censors that react to loving touches. A sound generator in the duck’s chest offers options such as white noise and guided meditation. “It provides some control for children over their environments,” Horowitz says.
‘I want to see how these kids are doing and that they’re OK.’
Kids can also utilize the duck to communicate their emotions — whether scared, mad, silly or happy — when words are hard to find.
“It was incredibly emotional to work with the kids,” Horowitz says of his recent visit with the duck to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “You parachute into a child’s life for a bit, and I want to see how these kids are doing and that they’re OK.”
Horowitz says he hopes his inventions will inspire new ideas in technology that will further improve the quality of life for children facing health challenges.
“To have a ‘friend’ just like you, who’s going through that shared experience, can be incredibly powerful to give kids a little bit of a feeling of control and to provide them with comfort,” he says.