CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University engineering alumnus and a current doctoral student have taken their classroom collaboration to the next level by creating a high-tech toy called the WavyWand and launching a new company to market and distribute it worldwide.
Adriaan Smit and Robert Batten have seen their Beaverton, Ore.-based business, Alight Technologies, grow significantly since they started it in 2005. Last year, they showcased the WavyWand at the 2006 International Toy Fair in New York City, and during a one hour Christmas season television special, HGTV named the WavyWand “one of the most innovative, must-have toys at the 2006 International Toy Fair in New York City.”
“The response at the toy fair was phenomenal,” Smit said. “The WavyWand was sold out within five days of the first airing of HGTV’s show.”
The toy resembles a miniature light saber that flashes images or words in the air when waved like a windshield wiper. It utilizes a phenomenon called “persistence of vision” in which sequential images appear to be continuous when projected in quick succession.
The WavyWand comes with pre-programmed text messages, pictures and animations, which the company calls “WaveArt.” Standard WaveArt are messages like “Cool!” or “Happy Birthday!” and images like hearts and flowers. The wand can also be programmed manually to display text messages or custom images by connecting it to a computer through a custom USB cord.
Smit, who received his master’s degree in electrical engineering from OSU in 2004, and Batten, a current doctoral student in electrical engineering, worked on several class projects together while at OSU.
“When we got closer to graduation, we realized we could make our designs work in the business world,” said Smit. “We got together and compiled a list of product ideas, and the WavyWand came out on top as the most viable product.”
The partners built their business from the ground up with technical and business advice from advisors like Terri Fiez, director of the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
“Terri has been extremely supportive throughout the entire process,” said Batten. “One of her focus areas has been to spin off research from the university into companies, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Batten and Smit spent the first year developing the business and product, acquiring business loans and investors, establishing contacts and working with manufacturers. “We didn’t have money for anything,” said Smit, so the partners developed everything from their business stationary to web design animations.
Finding a manufacturer that could produce a financially viable toy was the hardest challenge. Smit and Batten eventually chose to do business through a U.S. company that manufactures in China.
“You essentially don’t have a choice but to go to China,” said Batten. “We would have loved to do it entirely in the U.S., but it was not feasible financially. We wouldn’t have chosen this company had they not assured us that fair labor practices are in effect at their factories.”
Smit and Batten received the first shipment in November, 2005. Internet vendors like Edmund Scientific and ThinkGeek became their first distributors, and after the International Toy Fair, business began really picking up. A few small “mom and pop” stores around the U.S. started carrying the WavyWand, and now international distributors in England, Australia and South Africa are selling it as well.
Both Smit, originally from South Africa, and Batten, from Newfoundland, Canada, are pleased with the international interest and foresee their company expanding using the same type of light-oriented, persistence of vision products.
“We want to get into more technical products and see our engineering talents continue to expand,” said Batten.
Smit and Batten originally founded the company with Tyler Shaw, who received his doctorate in materials science from OSU, but has since left the company.
“This business is definitely fun. I enjoy every minute of it,” Smit said. “I’m glad I went this route even though it’s unconventional, but I feel the benefits are well worth it.”