Ever wonder what it might be like to see The Hulk or Wonder Woman sporting a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor or OmniPod patch insulin pump, while they're out battling villains and doing their heroic superhero deeds? Well, wonder no more!
Thanks to an engineering D-Dad in San Diego, CA, who happens to be savvy in 3D printing, it's now possible to find miniaturized replicas of these diabetes devices fit for any action figure, toy or doll that a child with diabetes might want to accessorize. You know, to embrace that "me too" and "just like me" sentiment that so resonates with kids who just don't want to be different.
Say hello to Heroic Kid, a budding new business started by D-Dad Joe Kuelker whose son Remy was diagnosed in 2014 just before his 2nd birthday. Joe's an engineer and product designer by trade and with an impressive professional resume, but who says that starting Heroic Kid has has had a more profound impact on him than anything he's done in his career to date.
In fact, while Heroic Kid is in its infancy and a teeny tiny one-person operation, it's already having a huge impact around the world. We think this makes it a "Small But Mighty" diabetes business worth profiling here at the 'Mine. We love the family's story, and it's especially heart-warming to hear this father talk about his desire to put smiles on the faces of children with diabetes while also giving back to the community.
“When you put these wonderful life-saving devices on your child, that’s when it kind of hits you hard that this is real... It’s hard to digest, that this is a life-altering condition. But maybe, (your child) doesn't have to feel so alone in living with it and wearing these devices," Joe says.
Genesis of Heroic Kid
Joe's son Remy had been only only about 22 months old when he was diagnosed with T1D in December of 2014, and he wasn't able to immediately start on an insulin pump because he was still a baby -- though he did get on a Dexcom CGM within a month of diagnosis.
But it wasn't until early 2017, when Remy was 4 years old and in preschool, that Joe says they started noticing a change in their son's understanding of diabetes. He began realizing that he was the only kid who had to wear these medical devices and focus on T1D tasks. Understandably, that made him feel “different” because of his diabetes. And that broke his father’s heart.
With a professional background in product development and engineering in the auto-related industry and experience working on complex projects like energy-efficient data center cooling systems in Silicon Valley, Joe immediately formed an idea. He turned to his personal 3D printer and started making some little replicas of diabetes devices that Remy wears -- the OmniPod insulin pump and Dexcom CGM.
Of course, the size difference was quite visible. The scale on a child compared to an adult is pretty large in comparison.
“He’s so tiny that we put these devices on him, and they look so massive,” Joe points out.
The first replica created was a mini OmniPod that Remy could attach to his stuffed Build-a-Bear style stuffed animal. Soon after, a Dexcom transmitter and sensor followed -- scaled roughly about half the size of the real-world medical products.
“I started this so he wouldn’t be so alone and could see one of these medical devices on one of his little friends, someone that is a part of his life,” Joe says, tearing up at the memory. “I just handed it to him and his eyes lit up. There was just this little smile, and he just accepted it. That was such a sweet moment.”
The process of making the D-Device replicas is a familiar one for Joe, as he uses many of the tools that he'd worked with in the product development industry now in his work at Heroic Kid. For example, the screws used in the stuffed animals are stainless steel for use with plastics, same as in the auto industry projects. Another re-adapted tool is the adhesive stick-and-peel patches of the little D-Device replicas, that he’s used in the past on high-volume, expensive products in engineering. They are also waterproof, so children can take the D-Device replicas into the bathtub with them and the adhesive won’t peel off.
“I’ve used them and I know this process works, it’s quality,” he says. “I don’t like to cut corners, and since I’ve worked with this stuff in the past, I have brought it over to Heroic Kid. It’s interesting how those worlds have crossed over.”
Creating a Business Model for the Diabetes Community
After seeing that look in Remy's eye, Joe says he wanted other kids and families to experience that same feeling. He decided to expand his project to the D-Community.
For the holidays 2017, the demand and response from Diabetes Community was amazing. It was a busy time, he says. He plans to open it up again for this upcoming holiday season, and isn’t quite sure what to expect.
“I’m really learning as I go all of the e-commerce and business aspects,” he says with a laugh. “This has been a big learning experience for me. Coming from engineering, you are given a specification or a problem to solve and then you’re often left alone to do the engineering work. You then hand it off to other people along the line, to release and sell and ship. But with Heroic Kid, I’m a one-man operation doing everything from the engineering and design work, to the small manufacturing and assembly, and then the marketing, selling, packaging and shipping. It’s all new, but it’s a lot of fun.”
The concept of creating diabetes gadgets and accessories for toys isn't 100% novel. Others have ventured into this area, too. Most notably in recent years, we've seen American Girl add a diabetes kit for its dolls, Build-a-Bear offering a similar diabetes kit; as well as stuffed animals like Lenny the Lion, Rufus, and Jerry the Bear who bring a D-theme to kids' lives.
While those are great, Joe points out that there wasn't anything for little kids who use OmniPod and Dexcom specifically, especially for them to have available for the favorite toys and stuffed animals they already love. He wanted to create something different, more specific. So here we are.
As of the start of September, Joe has roughly 50 items for sale – ranging from pin-on or stick-and-peel product replicas, including Pod-teeth for a pumpkin, to hats and T-shirts that he also produces. Almost all of it is made in-house, including the attire made at home with the hat-press and shirt-maker that he bought.
Joe says he’s keeping prices as low as possible -- ranging from about $5 to $20 per product -- and he invests all profits back into the business to continue manufacturing and expand what he offers.
A Stuffed Koala with Diabetes
One of the newest offerings is a little koala who happens to be wearing a Dexcom CGM – modeled “unofficially” after the Summer 2018 news about Quincy the Koala at the San Diego Zoo who was outfitted with a Dexcom G6! That story made its way around the D-Community, and Joe says he’s used that as inspiration for creating this fun mini Dexcom replica specifically for a little koala stuffed animal.
For each customer who buys a koala, another is donated to a local San Diego children’s hospital to use in their support and education programs. The purchasing customer’s name pinned onto the donated koala, as well as any social media IDs they might want included. That creates a connection within the community, something that was instrumental for their family when Remy was first diagnosed and they found support in the Diabetes Online Community (DOC), Joe says. He hopes to expand that to more hospitals over time, possibly working with charitable organizations or D-camps where kids and families might find this beneficial.
To him, it all fits perfectly with the “never alone” and “T1D just like me” mantras in the Diabetes Community. Especially for newly-diagnosed and young children, the Heroic Kid gear can be a diabetes teaching tool in general while also empowering children to be more comfortable with their own medical devices.
“This has always been about giving back,” Joe says. “It’s something that is important to me. It’s fun because not only are we giving back, but my customers can be a part of that. This is a great way to almost immediately have impact.”
As of now, Joe says he hasn’t been in contact with any D-Device companies like Insulet or Dexcom about his work at Heroic Kid. He’s not sure how that might materialize, but says it’s worth considering to see if any of the companies would be interested in supporting this endeavor.
Although it's a growing business, he sees it more as a hobby right now – possibly even becoming a non-profit in the future. All of that is TBD, this D-Dad says, because right now he’s focusing on his own son’s experience and those of other families in our community.
“I like to think of us as a unique company because we do things a bit differently, focused on things that don’t exist,” he says.
Well, that's one way to make unique dreams come true. Thank you, Joe!