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January 08, 2018 01:57 PM

As a child, Aaron Horowitz spent years getting poked and prodded as part of treatment for human growth hormone deficiency.

“Basically, I took a shot every day for about five years to grow and it wasn’t the most fun experience,” he tells PEOPLE. “So I became really passionate about how we can improve the way healthcare is delivered, especially to kids.”

Now, the co-founder and CEO of research and development workshop Sproutel is doing just that with a special robot designed to help kids with cancer get through the scariest and most painful aspects of their treatment.

My Special Aflac Duck — which Sproutel developed as part of Aflac’s ongoing Aflac Childhood Cancer campaign — is a robotic companion that pairs with an interactive mobile app and allows children to mirror their own care routines, including medical play, feeding and bathing. Additionally, the duck can emulate the patients’ mood though special RFID-enabled emoji cards and help comfort them with quacks, nuzzles and dancing.

Aaron Horowitz, co-founder and CEO of Sproutel
Courtesy

“Kids are really comforted by practicing their medical procedures through play therapy,” explains Horowitz, adding, “The focus for us is on helping children emotionally cope and supporting them through really stressful times.”

Horowitz notes that children diagnosed with cancer “lose such a tremendous amount of control,” explaining, “They’re diagnosed, they’re taken out of school, they go into what is on average a thousand days of treatment, three days a week at their cancer center to get chemotherapy.”

The duck, he says, is “a way for kids to control their experience.”

The My Special Aflac Duck

Much of development of the companion was done with the actual young patients, making the experience of watching children use the duck, now, all the more fulfilling. One patient, a 10-year-old who is non-verbal, “was able to communicate her emotions using these feeling cards that we built,” recalls Horowitz.

“Here’s somebody that was speaking in grunts and we asked her how she was feeling before her port access and she was able to grab the face and tap it to the duck and use the duck as her mouthpiece,” says Horowitz, getting emotional. “The feeling was just indescribable.”

Adds Horowitz, “Every family you visit you become personally invested in their story and in their treatment. This can be emotionally draining, but it is also what motivates us.”

Young patient, Teryn, with the My Special Aflac Duck
Courtesy

“Seeing the struggle that these families go through on a day to day basis is what wakes us up in the morning to create something that can make life a little bit easier.”

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Aflac is hoping to provide My Special Aflac Duck to the nearly 16,000 children newly diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. In February, Aflac and Sproutel will begin to deliver the robotic companions to children at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Georgia, for further testing.

My Special Aflac Duck is expected to be available to children with cancer — free of cost — nationwide in winter 2018/2019.

And the innovation is already getting major recognition: My Special Aflac Duck has been recognized as the winner of the prestigious Tech for a Better World Innovation Award at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

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