Brentwood boy wonder makes iPhone, iPad apps, donates tens of thousands to help kids, medical research

Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC

Cameron Cohen

Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC

Jacob Villapania, 15, and Victor Dobles Perez, 12, play in computer room at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital.

Stephanie O'Neill/KPCC

Cameron Cohen and mother Lisa Cohen


Going into the hospital for major surgery can be traumatic, especially if you’re just 11 years old.

But Brentwood resident Cameron Cohen, now 13, transformed such an experience into a high-tech project that helps other kids facing pre-surgery jitters.

On a recent afternoon, Brentwood resident Cameron Cohen, 13, and his childhood friend and classmate, Jared Eisner, 13, play a few rounds of a new word game called AnimalGrams on an Apple iPad. The eighth graders sound out potential words on the anagram-style game, missing some and getting others.

The game isn't an easy one, even for them, which is rather ironic, because Cameron wrote the program for AnimalGrams, which sells for 99 cents on Apple’s App Store and operates on iPhones and iPads.

"It’s a word scramble challenge," Cohen says. "You have five tiles with animals and each tile has a letter on them. The letters together make up a word but the tiles come out all scrambled and you have to rearrange them to form words and you’re against a clock, so it’s a puzzle game."

Pretty impressive stuff for a 13-year-old. But AnimalGrams isn't his first effort. When Cameron was 11 he had surgery for a benign tumor on his leg. Recovery took eight months, and during most of that time Cameron was stuck at home, without much to do.

"I couldn’t play sports and go outside with my friends much," he says. "I had a lot of time on my hands and decided to search one day, 'how do I make an iPhone app?'"

That led him to YouTube where he began absorbing tutorials by Stanford professors and Apple engineers. Then he started working on an app he called "iSketch." Cameron’s dad Jeffrey Cohen and mother Lisa Cohen didn’t quite realize what was going on.

"It was hard programming, and he would come down and say, 'I couldn’t figure out this one thing, but then I figured it out,' and we’d say, 'ah, that’s good,'" Lisa Cohen laughs. "Because we couldn’t figure out what he was talking about — so it was kind of a surprise.”

Cameron’s buddy Jared says iSketch is easier to use than other drawing applications.

"It’s cool because it’s like your iPhone’s a piece of paper," he says. "You can draw. You can write. You can do whatever you want. It’s very straightforward. It’s easy to pick your colors, to pick the size of the brush, to erase, to save."

iSketch is also profitable, earning about $20,000 so far, on the App Store. But Cameron doesn’t keep that money. With a little nudge from his parents, he decided to do something else.

"When you’re in a hospital and you’ve just had a surgery or you’re going to have an operation, the last thing you want to do is be thinking about it, because it just multiplies your pain immensely and makes it so much worse," Cameron says. "And I was so fortunate to have my devices to keep me occupied and keep me thinking of other things."

While in the hospital, Cameron says he noticed that many other kids around him had nothing to keep them distracted. And he wanted to change that.

So he donated all his iSketch profits to UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital, which uses the money to buy iPads and iPod Touches for use by young patients, such as Victor Dobles Perez of San Diego.

Dobles Perez underwent intestine transplant surgery last month. He says the iPad purchased with Cohen's donation gets him through the tough times.

"When I’m going for a procedure, it makes me get less worried so I don’t get scared, that’s how it helps me," Dobles Perez said. "And makes me get distracted while they’re putting in the medicine that makes me go to sleep."

Jacob Villapania, 15, of San Bernardino says he played the hit game Angry Birds on an iPad as he was wheeled into surgery for a liver transplant last month. The device, he says, provided a distraction that helped calm his fears.

Cameron Cohen says he's now going to spread his business profits even further. This year, he’s donating all proceeds from iSketch and AnimalGrams to fund research by UCLA pediatric oncologist Dr. Noah Federman.

"I was dumbstruck and overjoyed. I think the research support is so important to developing this new technology," says Federman, who is studying new ways to fight the most aggressive bone cancers that strike children and young adults. " And at the same time, I couldn’t believe that the support was coming from a 13-year-old, no less."

Cameron, meanwhile, says he plans to continue updating and improving iSketch and AnimalGrams. He’s already added high definition versions for the iPad. And he plans to learn more software programming languages so he can create even more applications that will make life easier — and maybe even more fun.

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