Re-invention and finding a little Wuggle room

Lionfish Development founder, and toy-making attorney, Todd Gordon.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

An attorney and inventor trying to help Long Island spread its innovative wings has finalized a big deal involving a plush-toy powerhouse and a global toy distributor.

Through his Shoreham-based startup Lionfish Development, toy-making attorney Todd Gordon has licensed his patented, child-friendly plush toy-stuffing machine – originally retailed under the Wuggle Pets brand – to Canadian distributor Spin Master, which has cut a deal to place the machines inside retail locations operated by Missouri-based Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Terms of the licensing agreements were not disclosed. But for Gordon, the wheeling-dealing – finalized heading into the 113th North American International Toy Fair held last week in New York City – is a case study in one of the most important and routinely overlooked facets of invention: re-invention.

Gordon is the founding director of The NY FabLab Development Corp., a registered 501(c)3 working to establish a Long Island FabLab – a state-of-the-art maker’s space networked to over 550 other international FabLabs created since the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the program in 2011. He’s also a veteran inventor, with five patents and a host of successful toy and pet products to his name. Among them: various products licensed to California-based distributor Petco and the toy-stuffing machine, which earned him a utility patent in February 2015.

bear-kidsTypical commercial teddy bear-stuffing machines are “something kids can’t use by themselves,” Gordon noted, brimming with “air compressors and all sorts of motors.” But his “kid-powered version” is completely safe, with no compressors or motors, not even batteries.

Children add the stuffing and turn a crank to shove the stuffing through a nozzle and into the plush toy’s “skin.” The simple act of removing the toy from the machine engages a novel zipper system – picture a standard zipper without the pull tab – that seals the toy permanently.

Originally marketing the make-your-own-stuffed-toy device as Wuggle Pets, Gordon reached a verbal distribution agreement with Spin Master last year (it’s not uncommon in the toy business, the attorney noted, for licensing deals to be finalized months, sometimes years, after the fact).

He was soon called on to retool his invention. Spin Master was in the midst of a new partnership with the Build-A-Bear Workshop, which was in the middle of a retail redesign – including moving bear-creation activities from backroom assembly areas to more visible locations.

That required Spin Master to reimagine Gordon’s child-friendly stuffing machines as whimsical, 7-foot-tall towers, the kind of colorful machines that might send young imaginations whirring. The Canadian company reached out to the original inventor, who set to reworking the machine’s outer shell.

“They came to us and said, ‘We want to put this out on the market, but we want it to look like this,’” Gordon noted. “So we worked with them to redesign the look of the machine.”

It was “an aesthetic challenge more than a mechanical one,” Gordon noted, and it didn’t take long to turn the backbone of the Wuggle Pets brand into the centerpiece of Build-A-Bear Workshop’s new look. Spin Master and Build-A-Bear inked their deal this month and introduced the reimagined stuffing machines at the Feb. 15-16 International Toy Fair.

Gordon said the Wuggle Pets/Spin Master/Build-A-Bear saga contains a good lesson for up-and-coming inventors on the importance of flexibility.

“Reinvention is often more difficult than invention,” he noted. “When somebody comes up with an idea, it’s very, very important that they keep in mind all the iterations they went through to get there.”

The notion, he added, is that most consumer products – particularly in the toy industry and in fashion, another sector the attorney/inventor has dabbled in – have “fairly short life spans.” To ensure a product has legs, inventors must be ready to tinker even after they’ve finalized their better mousetrap, and sometimes, according to Gordon, moving forward involves looking backward.

“If you’re able to reinvent it, sometimes by remembering some of those older iterations and incorporating those design elements, it can be essential,” the inventor said. “When you can create something that suggests the old (product) but is perceived by the market as new, you can sustain your invention over quite a number of years.”

It’s one of the great lessons of invention, but “a process that not many people understand,” he added, making a Long Island FabLab – a potential home for Island inventors stocked with next-generation tools like 3D printers, backed by MIT and the Island’s world-class R&D institutions and populated by entrepreneurial thinkers – an even more vital cog.

“There’s so much talk about innovation and creativity, but there’s a limited universe of people who are really professional in the actual day-to-day process of ideation and development and product launches and product sustainability,” Gordon said. “In that regard, hopefully all the things we’ve done at our little product-development company should help push the FabLab forward.

“We have real hands-on experience with the invention process,” he added. “I think that’s helpful.”