December 19, 2010

Stuffed Germ Toys An Unlikely Hit

Instead of normal Christmas gifts, a growing number of children, and adults, are looking under the tree for their favorite bacteria, viruses and other maligned micro-organisms, thanks to a Connecticut company behind a line of stuffed toys.

Drew Oliver, the founder of the Stamford-based company, GIANTmicrobes, said the toys -- which include hugworthy heartworm, cuddly E. coli, and other oddities -- are true to the microbes they represent except, of course, for their eyes and enhanced colors.

Once popular mostly as "geek chic" among medical workers and niche groups, the stuffed microbe toys have spawned Facebook fan sites and a subculture of collectors who eagerly await each new release.

Being a supplier of pretend diseases and viruses might seem like an odd career change for Oliver, 40, who was a Chicago corporate attorney when he started Giant Microbes in 2001.

Oliver, a father of four, thought stuffed versions of microbes that cause sore throats, influenza and other ailments could help children understand the illnesses and avoid some of them by being more hygienic-minded.

Sales of the stuffed microbes launched in 2002, but business took a few years to pick up and, even then, it only thrived in niche markets such as museum shops and college bookstores. But in the last few years, the giant germs have spread like a common cold, which remains its biggest seller.

"All four of my kids are really into science, and my two oldest girls thought they were the coolest thing ever," Joslyn Gray, a GIANTmicrobes fan who lives near Houston, told the Associated Press. "There's just so much crap out there for kids these days. To find something that's clever and smart and still fun is really great."

Gray discovered GIANTmicrobes after writing on her blog, www.starkravingmadmommy.com, about her 4-year-old son's germ anxiety after preschool lessons on hygiene. She received numerous suggestions from readers telling her to introduce to him the cuddly germs he feared so much. "Having them brought something lighthearted to the subject "” and this was after weeks of him wiping down everything he encountered with anti-viral tissues to the point where it was really affecting his life," said Gray.

GIANTmicrobes has moved beyond the common microbes that it originally introduced, adding exotic ones such as malaria and sleeping sickness, and even critters such as dust mites and bed bugs. The company has even introduced algae into its lineup.

The American Red Cross has used the stuffed red blood cell in school presentations, and the Education Centre Library serving Ontario's Canadore College and Nipissing University has dozens of GIANTmicrobes in its lending inventory. Students borrow them and take them to classrooms during their student teaching stints. Others use them as biology study tools.

"You should see the excitement when the new microbes arrive," said Charlotte Innerd, the library's reference and information services manager. "We'll be processing them in the back room and everyone's asking, 'Which ones came in?'"

Oliver says he does not disclose sales figures for the privately held company, but did say its success allowed him to leave his attorney job, move back to his hometown of Greenwich, Conn. and run the business full time. GIANTmicrobes now has headquarters in Stamford, and has an office in the UK, along with distribution partners around the world.

The microbes, which Oliver describes as whimsy rooted firmly in science, harken to his college days as an editor at the offbeat Harvard Lampoon humor magazine.

The stuffed microbes are each a million or more times larger than their actual counterparts, and each one comes with an informative information card about their origins and how to avoid illnesses they cause and spread. Each one also has eyes to give them a "face," so to speak. Some also come with special features: tiny knife and fork embroidered on the chest of the flesh-eating disease's microbe, and a black cape on the MRSA bacterium known colloquially as the "superbug" for its resistance to certain antibiotics, for example.

"From the beginning they were designed to be whimsical, of course, with the eyes and features like that, but also scientifically sound "” to the extent that a plush doll of a germ can be," Oliver said.
Another category that sells well are the microbes carrying sexually transmitted diseases, often popular as joke gifts. Needless to say, those ones aren't marketed to children, said Oliver.
"The idea is never to make fun of these issues or people who are contending with them," he said. "They can provide an approachable way to talk about what's otherwise, in some circumstances, a dry or very awkward subject."


Image Caption: An assortment of GIANTmicrobes (Credit: GIANTmicrobes)


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