Air Toobz inventor Brad Owen on innovation, design challenges and working with Fat Brain
Brad, it’s great to catch up. Before we talk about Air Toobz, do you have a background in toy design?
Great catching up with you as well. My background is actually in software development – but as an engineer I’ve built all sorts of things over the years. Designing a toy was always on my business bucket list.. I had two things on that list. One was to start a candy factory and the second was to own a toy company. I don’t own a toy company – but at least we’re developing some toys! It’s been super fun.
Air Toobz is a fabulous product; I got to play with it at New York Toy Fair and could’ve happily parked up at the Fat Brain booth with it for hours! Where did the idea for this come from?
I love hearing that and feel the same! There’s a children’s museum here in Cleveland – they have an exhibition which is a large tube system that primarily sucks in scarves. After looking into it, I realised they have these in children’s museums all across the US.
At the time, our kids loved this exhibit and so we’d go there all the time. When Covid hit, they were quite upset about not being able to play with it. So, I went to the workshop to see if we could build a miniature version.
How did you put that early version together?
We took tubes from an old hamster cage and tried to air seal them. We used a fan system from an old vacuum… We wanted to prove whether or not there was fun to be had here. That first ball shooting across the room was an epiphany moment! We got in touch with some engineers I’d worked with before and got to work on a prototype. Low and behold, seven months later we had a fully working prototype.
At what point did it become clear this was an idea you could pitch to toy companies?
The first thing we did was – on Christmas Eve – put the prototype in the living room. The kids had not seen the prototype at that point. We unveiled it and filmed them playing with it. We called the video ‘The First Play’ – and they played with this thing for hours! I had so much footage to edit! It was magical. That’s when I knew we had to make this for other kids.
What happened next was quite serendipitous. I was giving a talk at an event and afterwards a gentleman – Bruce Good of Good Marketing – walked up to me and said: “I don’t know how we might work together, but we’re in the toy licensing space and I really enjoyed your talk.” We had a discussion and I said: “I actually have a toy at home… I have to show you this thing!” They started opening up doors to different toy companies for us and there was a lot of interest in the toy. They were fantastic.
Amazing. And what made Fat Brain the right home for it?
Fat Brain has always been my family’s favourite toy company. I love the simplicity of their toys. Lots of toys have diminished in quality over the years; lots of have electronics, flashing lights, noises… We love the quality and simplicity of learning that you get with Fat Brain’s line-up. We were super excited to work with them.
Well, they say never meet your heroes, but how have they been to work with?
Fantastic. I worked with Adam Hocherman a lot and he was amazing. The whole engineering team was phenomenal; there were a lot of challenges in getting Air Toobz to work. It looks like a simple product, but the simple products are often the toughest to build. There were plenty of hurdles to overcome: The aerodynamics, the airflow around balls, Bernoulli’s principle… I had to put my physics hat on!
I thought Bernoulli’s Principle was an Al Pacino film but I’ll take your word for it! You mentioned airflow being one of those hurdles – in what sense?
If you think about how a normal fan works, if you put something in front of it, the air flows backwards. But when you want to propel something forward, you don’t have that opportunity. You need velocity and pressure, and both of those provide challenges. Then you have the issue of how objects enter the fan unit.
On top of that, the tubes themselves were a big challenge. They’re more difficult to produce than you might imagine. The circumference of them, making them safe for young children… There were lots of factors to consider when it came to ensuring the objects would flow through the system at a really good rate for children.
Fat Brain added lots of functionality, including the ability for children to control the airflow – that’s really fun for kids. Like I said earlier, their team is exceptional. A lot of companies run like corporations, so to find a company as large as Fat Brain that still runs like a family is pretty special.
Looking ahead, how far do you think the Air Toobz brand can go? Would you like to see more sets launch?
There’s an enormous amount of opportunity to expand the range. The basis of the product is air-powered play – there are so many avenues to explore and we have some really fun things in the works.
We’ll keep an eye out! Away from Air Toobz, have you got other toy concepts you’re now developing or looking to pitch?
Well as an entrepreneur, I’m cursed by ideas – there are lots of them! The important thing is to pick the right ones. I find that the best ideas come from your own needs, like building Air Toobz for our own children, and I see us focusing more on toys and toy-related products in the future.
In software, you’re solving problems that shouldn’t really exist. Each platform fixes the void of another platform. In toys, there’s still such a huge opportunity to build novel concepts because the sector isn’t overly innovative. The really cool toys still stand out.
And Air Toobz absolutely stands out. Before we wrap up, you said you’re cursed by ideas – but what helps you have ideas?
Looking at the world like it’s a playground – and when I look around, I often see the problems. When you see the problems, it allows you to get into a space whereby you can focus on solutions. Ultimately, it’s fuelled by an urge to create and solve puzzles – and I find the process really enjoyable.
Brad, thanks again for this. And congrats on everything Air Toobz!
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