Hannah Chung is a 2012 Northwestern graduate and co-founder of Design for America. She recently won a startup competition at the invite-only Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit for Jerry the Bear, an interactive toy for kids with Type 1 diabetes.
Chung co-founded Sproutel, a company that produces interactive games for kids with chronic illnesses. In 2012, Chung was listed in Inc. magazine as one of the “15 Women to Watch in Tech,” and Mashable named Sproutel as one of “Top 5 Startups that Use Tech to Do Good.”
In November, Sproutel will distribute Jerry the Bear to homes across the country. North by Northwestern talked to Chung about the inspiration behind Sproutel, meeting Warren Buffett and how Jerry got his name.
Can you describe Sproutel's mission?
Our goal is to make interactive games for kids with chronic illnesses to learn and cope. Our robots not only help kids with behavioral resonance, but also help them emotionally cope through the process. We are starting with Type 1 diabetes and are expanding to autism and asthma. My father’s family has Type 2 diabetes. My co-founder, Aaron Horowitz, had human growth hormone deficiency when he was young. When you’re a child with diabetes, you prick your fingers and receive insulin all the time. He empathized with the kids because he knows how hard it is. We always ensure that the people who are working with us have some attachment with the chronic illness we help to solve. When you have some attachment to a chronic illness, that really brings the energy from the passion side, which you won’t get from studying something at college.
What was it like meeting Warren Buffett? Did he give you any advice?
I thought he was really energetic, really smart. He gave a lot of good feedback. I felt honored to meet him and I’m glad that he liked my pitch. After the pitch, we talked about some financials and business models that we have. He said if we keep on going, he could see Sproutel being great.
How does Jerry the Bear help kids with diabetes?
We are shipping our bears in in November. It’s the first time they will be living in homes. Because of Jerry the Bear, kids aren’t afraid of needles anymore. Jerry has a color touch screen on his belly, six sensors on his body and he comes with an insulin pen. You have to prick his finger to check his blood sugar level. You are actually practicing how you will take care of yourself. When first learning about the importance of blood sugar or insulin, kids can’t visualize it. Jerry is really helping kids connect pieces together – the why, the what. It helps calm them down, be less stressed and not scared.
Jerry was named by my original team. We didn’t know what to name him. There was this guy whose name was Jerry, and they called him Jerry the Bear, so that’s where it started. Parents thought it was based on Jerry Garcia who also had diabetes. They thought it was clever. It wasn’t what we originally intended, but it stuck. People liked it.
What do you remember most about Northwestern?
I co-founded Design for America with my friends, and I would say most of my undergrad experience revolved around DFA. I was learning about social entrepreneurship and the idea of becoming an entrepreneur in DFA. Jerry the Bear was the first product that actually came out of DFA. At Northwestern, my curriculum path was really entrepreneurial. If NU didn’t allow me to become adventurous in my curriculum, I don’t know where I would be right now.
Any last thoughts?
I’ve received a lot of Northwestern love in the past few days. It’s really exciting. It’s always great to have a home like Northwestern that wants to keep up with the products and support me. Meeting Warren Buffett was good, but getting the love from NU was amazing.