Toys: Plush, Stuffed Microbes

Drew Oliver hit upon his big idea after reading a memoir by scientist Richard Feynman. In "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" the author describes his wonderment after examining a microbe inside a water droplet. As the drop evaporated, the germ, apparently sensing impending doom, tried desperately to escape. "Like many people, Feynman had the impression that microbes are little blobs that don't do much," says Oliver, sitting at his desk at the company's Stamford, Conn., headquarters. "And he was incredibly surprised to see all these little organisms behaving like real creatures. It's that sense of wonder about such small things having recognizable characteristics that really impressed me about the story." Presto! Oliver's line of plush, stuffed microbes: Ebola, salmonella, mad cow, pond scum and Black Death.

Oliver bet that others, especially children, would be just as fascinated by this invisible, bustling world. In 2002, while a student at the University of Chicago Law School, Oliver, with help from his brother Dan, invested $25,000 to launch Giantmicrobes, Inc. He started with a line of four common germs—those that cause colds, flu, sore throats and stomachaches—and has since expanded to 60 plush dolls. This year the company, which employs just five permanent staffers, expects $3 million in sales.

Oliver does the initial design for each character himself, based on an image from an electron microscope. A former writer and editor at The Harvard Lampoon, he infuses each character with humor (mad cow is black and white) but hues closely to its biological form. The dolls, which are designed and manufactured in China, come with tags showing how they look under a microscope and explaining how they function.

The toys, which retail for $7.95, sell in 16 countries at mainstream toy stores like FAO Schwarz, museum shops, comic-book stores and over the Web. At San Francisco's Exploratorium science museum, the common cold is the best seller. But at Harvard Square's Newbury Comics, gonorrhea is the favorite, especially around Valentine's Day, says KT Gelwick, its director of trend buying.

This combination of gag gift and educational toy can be an awkward marketing fit. Toy stores steer clear of STDs, and Oliver aims bugs like HIV at health-care professionals. Soon he'll be expanding into items like bandages displaying the red-blood-cell character. From there, he plans a line of animated videos. "I want to do for microbes what Walt Disney did for rodents," says Oliver. You have to love that infectious enthusiasm.

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