OSU engineers turn trick of the eye into a toy
Like his father, Adriaan Smit came to the United States to earn an advanced degree in engineering. But he doesn't plan to return to his native South Africa, as his father did, to launch a career.
No, he's living in a rented house in Beaverton and selling toys.
'Even my friends kind of jokingly ask, 'When are you gonna get a real job?' ' the 27-year-old Smit says.
He may not be on the conventional career path, but Smit and business partner Robert Batten appear to be going places, and they've done it with the wave of a wand.
What began two and a half years ago as an idea for better bicycle safety has morphed into a bit of whimsy. It may never catch the giants of Oregon toy history - the Erector Set, the View-Master, the Hacky Sack - but the WavyWand is on the charts and rising.
'It's a lot of fun,' says Marilynne Eichinger, head of the high-tech toy seller Museum Tour and former director of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
WavyWand is a narrow, lightweight plastic stick, 17 inches long, that looks like a very slender vacuum cleaner attachment. Above the handle is a series of numbered light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, which give off an intensely bright light.
When waved vigorously from side to side, a motion-activated chip commands the LEDs to fire in a pre-programmed sequence, creating recognizable images in midair.
In reality, a principle called 'persistence of vision' is tricking the eye into seeing the image, much as still frames coalesce into a motion picture.
'You're seeing an image that's no longer there when you see it,' Batten says.
The WavyWand also offers wide possibilities. Software and a computer plug-in allow the user to spell words or 'draw' any number of shapes.
'You can program anything you want into it,' Smit says.
Just say 'Lumos!'
'I can do really cool things with technology,' says Smit, who has a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from Oregon State University. 'This is one of them.'
Smit might have ended up at Xerox or another high-tech firm if not for the WavyWand. Both he and Batten attended the prestigious engineering school at Walla Walla College, but they did not meet until later, at OSU.
While in Corvallis in 2004, Batten had a notion about improving the safety of the town's many cyclists by using LEDs.
'I wanted to put a picture on the wheels of a bike,' he says.
When Batten, Smit and a third associate, who has since left the company, discovered that products like the one Batten envisioned were already available, they went to Plan B.
Scanning the market for a foothold, the team noted that the 'persistence of vision' toy market seemed to offer an opportunity.
'Adriaan went home one night and came back the next day with a prototype,' Batten says. 'Eight LEDs and a circuitboard.'
The young entrepreneurs were soon knocking on doors with a crude prototype fashioned from hobby wood. They got investors to sink $125,000 into the project, and a bright green light went on. Within a year, Alight Technologies was born and had its first shipment of 3,000 WavyWands.
They made a trip east for a toy fair Batten calls the second largest of its kind in the world. It turned out to be the right place and the right time. A crew from the home and garden channel HGTV showcased the WavyWand in a segment produced for broadcast, and the show aired during the height of gift-buying season, between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
'We sold everything we had and had to make another order right before Christmas,' Batten says. 'We were named most innovative toy of 2006.'
Smit, who has gotten a crash course in business since the founding of Alight Technologies, is projecting sales of more than $20,000 in the coming six months.
'I expect it to go up about five times the following year,' he says.
The overwhelming bulk of WavyWand sales - they retail for roughly $35 - takes place online through www.wavywand.com or such companies as ThinkGeek.com and ZeroToys. com. Smit and Batten still hope to snag a large retailer like Fred Meyer.
They've also identified a market with nearly limitless potential: sports fans. At his home, Smit shows off a version of Alight's signature product in slick green and yellow packaging - yes, the University of Oregon Ducks WavyWand.
'We've already talked to local stores, and they're all excited about it,' he says. 'How many sports fans are there in the United States? It's millions. Every one of those is a potential WavyWand client. '
Though Alight's budget will need to grow before the company can begin making such customized orders, Smit says he's already begun talking to representatives from the National Hockey League and the National Football League.
Eichinger, president of the Milwaukie-based Museum Tour, says WavyWand's appeal goes beyond fun and games.
When Smit and Batten approached Museum Tour, now an $8 million-a-year online and catalog-driven purveyor of high-quality educational items, Eichinger and a four-member product panel were eager to do business.
'What we like is that it's programmable,' she says. 'That's the educational piece. They were the young, smart boys that have a very good science and engineering background.
'There are many people with Ph.D.s in engineering that are working on toys. You need a background in technology. Because of nanotechnology and other types of electronics, some of the toys are very sophisticated.'
Plus, she says, she's seen the WavyWand pass the acid test: 'I gave one to my grandson a year ago, and he loved it.'
It's not that dorky
Smit, who looks like a skinnier version of pop star Chris Isaak, says being the inventor of WavyWand doesn't make him a geek.
'I don't mind socializing, which is different from most engineers,' he says.
To be fair, while a completed jigsaw puzzle in a frame adorns his living room, his house also has a pool table.
He doesn't miss the conventional career he could be having, in part because Alight Technologies gives him a chance to develop products people can actually see.
'A lot of times, in electronics, it's a little piece inside your cell phone or inside your computer,' he says. 'I would much rather be working on these kinds of things.'
As interest in the WavyWand continues to build, Smit says Alight has plenty of other bright ideas from where the last one came. The company's next venture is close to going forward, and, if everything goes according to plan, Batten will move to the Portland area and into a full-time position when he completes his doctorate in Corvallis this summer.
'When we started off, we had a list of 30 different ideas,' Smit says. 'We picked the easiest one. That list is still there.'
Whether any of it earns the full approval of Smit's father, a respected genetic engineer who earned a Ph.D. from Purdue University, remains an open question.
'My dad still gives me a hard time,' he says. ' 'Go to school for eight years, then play with toys when you get done.' '