Adam Hocherman has been making toys since 2008, but up until now, the products have been designed for young children. When he sold his company’s line of Onaroo toys to a Wisconsin firm last year, it gave him some cash and freedom to pursue his next big move: making an awesome marble roller coaster meant to promote STEM education for children who are in middle school or around that age. (STEM, of course, refers to science, technology, engineering and math.)Hocherman is the founder of Tinkineer, a Beverly, Mass.-based startup that’s launching its first product through Kickstarter—Marbleocity, a build-it-yourself, marble machine kit made out of baltic birch plywood. Already halfway through its campaign, Marbleocity has already raised more than $67,000, nearly five times its original crowdfunding goal.Hocherman told me the product let him combine his passion for education and designing children’s products with his desire to keep manufacturing local and build products that don’t use plastic.
With its roller coaster-like design, Marbleocity looks like one of those toys that would easily give you the “best mom/dad ever” title if you brought it home to your kids. But the bigger goal is giving middle school-aged children a chance to learn about concepts in physics before going into high school. Each kit comes with a comic that teaches STEM lessons that are then reinforced in the building and operation of the marble machine kit.
In general, Hocherman said he hopes it can help break down the barriers for STEM education.
“It’s a project that’s going to prep you for some of the concepts you’re going to start learning about,” he said. “When you’ve seen something once before, it’s so much easier to absorb it a second time.”
The first line of Marbleocity products are the Dragon Coaster module and Skatepark module that can link together. There’s also a cheaper, smaller version of the Dragon Coaster called the Mini Coaster.
At American Innovative, the company Hocherman previously founded, Hocherman said he would typically go to toy fairs to promote his products and find retail partners. With Kickstarter, he said he has found a better way to start out.
In the traditional way of doing things, Hocherman said, he would be a small fish in a very big pond, but on Kickstater, if you can craft an attractive campaign with plenty of visuals and details, “everyone has equal footing.”
Beyond helping his startup raise money for its manufacturing equipment, Hocherman said Kickstarter can be a good way to see how consumers respond to certain products. And when there’s market traction, “it enables you to make decisions more freely,” he added. Which has obviously been the case for the Marbleocity campaign so far.
After the campaign is over and the first line of products are shipped to backers early next year, Hocherman said he plans to dive back into the traditional way of doing things in his industry and go to Toy Fair 2016 in New York City and find potential retail partners. But, Hocherman added, he also wants to continue exploring to the direct-to-consumer route.
Apart from the funds being raised on Kickstarter, Hocherman said the startup has been completely bootstrapped, though he has met with a few investors who are interested in seeing how an operation like this could scale.
Through his other company, Hocherman said most of the products were made overseas. With Tinkineer, however, he said he’s committed to keeping manufacturing in the U.S.
Using his knowledge of setting up supply chains, Hocherman said part of what makes Marbleocity a viable American manufacturing project is inherent in its design: since the kit is meant to be assembled by customers as part of the learning experience, that takes out a significant labor cost. Hocherman said Tinkineer is expected to close on a light manufacturing space in the North Shore area soon, and the facility will include a laser-cutting machine to cut out the kit’s wooden parts and other equipment necessary for the kit’s other parts.
While the startup is currently a two-person team, with Krista Jakes serving as its director of marketing, Hocherman said he’s currently in the midst of hiring a production manager and a team of temps for the first line of production.
“Very quickly it’s going to be a small manufacturing operation,” he said.
An idea Hocherman said he has considered for some time in the future is opening up the manufacturing space for groups of kids to visit and see how the kits are put together for some kind of STEM classroom experience.
“It’s this great kind of educational thing to do instead of going to the trampoline facility,” he said.