Cameron Cohen: Child Programmer and Philanthropist

After bone-tumor surgery he donated his app store revenue to help other ailing children

cameron
Photo: Justin Cohen
APP ALTRUISM: Cameron Cohen's 2009 hospital stay led him to program a top-selling iPhone app and give away the earnings.

If it hadn't been for a life-altering medical crisis, Cameron Cohen, 13, wouldn't have found his calling as a programmer. But it's what he did with his earnings that really defines him.

Two years ago, at age 11, Cohen underwent surgery to remove a bone tumor that kept him in the hospital for 10 days and his family on edge until they learned the tumor was benign. To pass the time during a nine-month recovery period in a hip-to-toe leg brace, Cohen taught himself the programming language Objective-C. With it, he created iSketch, an app that lets you draw pictures on your iPhone and upload or e-mail them. So far, the US $0.99 program has sold some 50 000 units.

"I'm terrible at drawing, but it's fun to draw on my iPhone," says Cohen. "The few free programs I could find were really bad, and the really good ones were $5 to $10. So I thought, 'Why not make a really good drawing app for a dollar, so a lot of people can buy it?' "

Cohen had been the IT guru for his elementary school teachers at the John Thomas Dye School in Los Angeles and attended summer camps for robotics and computer programming, but he had never tried programming for an iPhone. Stuck at home, he watched iTunes U lectures on programming taught by Stanford professors and read programming manuals and Apple tutorials. By the time his brace came off, in September 2009, he'd finished the app. It was accepted by Apple's App Store that November. (It's also available on iTunes.)

His parents were stunned. "We were just happy he'd found an interest that could divert his attention away from his predicament," says his father, Jeffrey, an attorney. "So when he finally said, 'Here's what I have. Can you help me test it?' we were blown away. And then, when it was approved by Apple and he wanted to help the hospital…we were incredibly proud of him."

Which brings us to the twist that sets Cohen apart. When an unexpected flurry of units sold, he donated $20 000 to the Chase Child Life Program at the Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA (which has a unit in Santa Monica, where he'd been hospitalized), so its staff could purchase MacBooks, iPads, iPods, and video games for teen and preteen patients to use during their stays. The gesture earned him appearances on CBS and ABC News, BBC Radio, and an article in USA Today.

"When I was in the hospital, I had my computer and iPod Touch to distract me," says Cohen. "But I saw so many other kids who didn't have these things and were just lying there. The last thing you want to do is think about what just happened or what kind of operation you have coming up. You want to be distracted. So when I saw money coming in from iSketch, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to give back."

"The technology has been a great distraction from the stress of surgery and hospital environment, like getting IVs," says Amy Bullock, the director of the Chase Child Life Program. "It's made [the children] more compliant with their medication and allows their parents to take a breather. Cameron is an extraordinary young man."

While Cohen slowly returns to sports, particularly tennis, he recently upgraded iSketch so that pictures can be uploaded directly to Twitter and Facebook. "I like creating Web applications instead of websites—things that people can use to make everyday tasks easier," he says. "I'm planning to learn a lot more programming languages, like Python and Ruby. If it wasn't for my illness, I might never have gotten superinterested in this or learned about this side of myself."

About the Author

Susan Karlin lists among her achievements acting, drawing, traveling to every continent, and writing for such publications as The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and IEEE Spectrum.

To Probe Further

More information about Cohen and his products is available at http://www.cccdevelopmentllc.com.

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