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Profiles

Zometool

By Margaret Jackson | Apr 26, 2015

Consumer & Lifestyle

Company Details

Location

Longmont, Colorado

Founded

1992

Ownership Type

Private

Employees

8

Products

Educational Toys

www.zometool.com

Longmont, Colorado

Founded: 1992

Privately owned

Employees: 8, plus independent contractors

President Carlos Neumann markets it as an educational toy, but the company's products have also been used by scientists and artists in their work.

Zometool makes a plastic construction set that lets you quickly and easily build models of complex polyhedra. The concept is similar to Tinker Toys. A plastic connector ball has 62 holes where the ends of struts are inserted. By connecting the struts and balls, it's possible to build countless shapes from the very simple to the very complex.

"It's friendly and engaging enough that it makes for a great toy," says Neumann. "There's a great deal of mathematical precision, so it's also used for research by scientists and artists. Half of our customers are under 13, and the other half are over 30."

Consider this:

  • The Jonas Salk Institute used Zometool in its research for a cure for AIDS.
  • Nobel Prize winner Dan Shechtman used an early version of Zometool to illustrate the atomic structure of quasicrystals.
  • Artists Olafur Eliasson has used Zometool for prototyping, as well as an active element in his work -- thousands of Zometool parts are available to visitors to interact with his exhibit at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany.

About half of Zometool products are sold in the United States. It's also distributed in Europe, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Australia. Most of the kits are sold online, either through the company's web site or sites such as Mindware and Amazon. Some retailers carry the products, which are especially popular in museum shops and specialty gift stores.

Zometool's origins date to the 1960s, when a group of artists in an experimental community near Trinidad, Colo., wanted to create art pieces they could love in.

The Drop City artists -- including Zometool founder Steve Baer -- were fascinated with dome geometry, but found it was difficult to build a dome-shaped structure because of the need for circular floors and numerous edges and joints. "Even though it's a simple shape, it's a complicated structure to build," says Neumann. "It didn't work out as well as expected."

Baer invented Zome geometry, which uses fewer parts than dome construction and is simpler to build. It also could be used to build a variety of shapes beyond a simple dome. The original company -- Zomeworks -- manufactured Zometoys, but the concept didn't take off. At first, it was more popular with the scientific community than with consumers.

Now manufacturing in Longmont, Zometool is trying to straddle the line between science and play with a kit that gives users an engaging hands-on entry into geometry and other academic areas. The kit, which also features an art component, has become a favorite among educators and homeschooling families. "One of the things we've found is that boys and girls take to the product with equal enthusiasm," Neumann says. "That's the biggest opportunity is getting this in the hands of kids."

Challenges: Zometool faces a myriad of challenges. Its plant was wiped out by the 2013 flood that swamped much of Boulder County just as the company was gearing up for production that would take it to the level of sales it needs to succeed. The flood left Zometool in a fragile cash position from which it is just starting to recover three years later. "We didn't have the production capacity to sell what we needed to be selling," Neumann says. "We got new machinery, a new plant. We were ready to grow and tackle the marketing challenge. The next week it started to rain. We lost all of our production capacity for the full fourth quarter -- terrible timing for a toy manufacturer."

Another challenge Zometool faces is trying to perform all its functions in house with a staff of just eight people. That's everything from production manufacturing and assembly to distribution, marketing and web sales. "We're a small company with big company problems," Neumann says. "There's a lot of different hats to wear with very few people to wear them."

Opportunities: Zometool's biggest opportunity is in education, especially with the push for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), which is seen as a way to increase innovation in the United States. "The kinds of patterns that you encounter with Zometool get your mind working in a different way," Neumann says. "It's like learning how to read. Understanding that the squiggly lines on a page actually mean something and being able to process that opens up new windows."

Needs: Better communication in everything from social media outlets to writing instructions for how to use a Zometool kit is one of the company's primary needs, though Neumann says it could use some additional financing as well. "We try to give an overall introduction to the system, and for some people that's more than enough," Neumann says. "But we should have more content that makes it easy for people to get started with it and just keep going. Some people get it right away and some people don't. We need to make sure those to don't engage with it until it clicks."

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Zometool