5.31.18 Entrepreneurial Success

Viral Growth: How GIANTmicrobes Built a Global Business with Cute Plush Products That Make Learning About Life Sciences Fun

By: Michael Senecal

The Crunch: Looking for an engaging way to teach his children about the virtues of hand-washing, law student and would-be entrepreneur Drew Oliver created a few stuffed toys that looked like microbes. That germ of an idea became GIANTmicrobes, a company that today produces more than 200 different toys that resemble microbes, cells, and organisms, and are as educational as they are adorable. Students, teachers, and science geeks young and old find that cute plush products from GIANTmicrobes help the serious medicine of health education go down a little easier. Now the company is deepening the scientific information it offers to consumers and broadening its product line — a strategy that’s turning the toymaker into a respected provider of instructional healthcare materials.

As an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, Drew Oliver served as editor of The Harvard Lampoon — the time-honored humor magazine and society that counts a long list of leaders and luminaries among its membership.

Later, as a new parent and law student at the University of Chicago, he found himself struggling to teach his kids about the value of hygiene and the importance of hand-washing. He hit upon the idea of entertaining and educating them at the same time — with plush dolls that looked like real germs and viruses, only a million times their actual size.

One thing led to another, and by the time Drew started work in 2002 as an associate at a law firm, he was also CEO of a budding company, GIANTmicrobes, having placed an order for his first batch of 10,000 plush dolls representing the common cold, flu, sore throat, and stomach ache.

Today, with more than 10 million microbe plush toys ordered, GIANTmicrobes boasts 200 distinct stuffed toys to represent microbes, cells, viruses, and even a few organisms. Its entertaining and informative plushes are available online and at retail outlets across five continents.

Loved by students, teachers, health and science professionals, science geeks in general, and anyone with a healthy sense of humor and an inquisitive mind, GIANTmicrobes makes health information more accessible and learning about the life sciences fun.

“Common cold is still one of our top sellers — I guess because it’s so common,” said GIANTmicrobes President Andrew Klein. “But everything we do today follows the same basic template Drew established years ago: We deliver important health and science information in an entertaining way.”

Demystifying Disease & Making Health Care Topics Approachable

Plush toys from GIANTmicrobes put an amusing face on disease-causing organisms that people might otherwise know only by name. By being adorable, the toys break down barriers and make conversations about sensitive topics less awkward.

The educational content GIANTmicrobes produces in conjunction with each toy is therefore of extreme importance. The company goes to great lengths to ensure that the information it provides is accurate and helpful so parents, children, teachers, and students can rely on it.

“We cover so many different topics, so in a way we’re all amateur scientists here — I have a science background myself,” Andrew said. “But we work with outside experts to make sure we get things absolutely right.”

For example, in working on celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder caused by gluten intolerance, GIANTmicrobes consulted with physicians and researchers studying the disorder. Celiac causes the villi, the fingerlike folds that line the small intestine, to diminish in size and lose their ability to absorb nutrients. To portray that transformation, the toy from GIANTmicrobes turns inside out — healthy villi on one side, unhealthy on the other.

A screenshot of the celiac plush

GIANTmicrobes includes educational content with its plush toys to encourage learning.

Content is presented on hang cards attached to the toys and on packages and always includes a photograph of the actual microbe. The website then goes into greater detail. In the case of celiac, for example, inquiring minds learn that the folds of the villi make the surface area of the small intestine roughly 200 times larger than the surface area of the skin.

GIANTmicrobes builds many of its consultative relationships through contacts made at health and medical association events, which it attends regularly. Teachers are also a great source of feedback.

Andrew said the GIANTmicrobes STD line came about as a result of requests from teachers. Available separately, in a four-pack, and in a deluxe 12-pack, the line deals with everything from chlamydia and gonorrhea to HIV and Zika virus.

“High school and college health and science teachers use those products to engage their students in discussions that can be very challenging to have in the classroom,” Andrew said. “We make talking about sex and STDs easier.”

“We deal with it all, and it’s really nothing to laugh about — these are terrible diseases,” Andrew said. “But these cute toys can help teenagers learn to associate nebulous words like ‘herpes’ with real, tangible, infections that can actually affect them personally — and they get it.”

Connecting Health Brands and Charities with Their Supporters

GIANTmicrobes also partners with health charities and offers customization for brands looking to stand out in their marketing. These options create additional use cases for the toys, generate support for important causes, and help spread the word to donors and consumers.

For example, proceeds from sales of the GIANTmicrobes brain cell go to TeamFox, actor Michael J. Fox’s foundation, which is dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease and to developing improved therapies for those living with Parkinson’s.

 

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: HIV proceeds go to amfAR — The Foundation for AIDS Research. Sales from the company’s vaccine packs go to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. All told, GIANTmicrobes supports medical research and public health education at 10 different charities and counting.

A collage of logos representing the charitable organizations GIANTmicrobes supports

GIANTmicrobes partners with several health charities to encourage consumer support and to spread donor awareness.Although the company publicizes its charity partnership opportunities on its website and has developed several relationships that way, partnerships also originate in the other direction, through people working in charitable organizations who are familiar with the toys.

“They might already have them sitting in their office, actually,” Andrew said. “When we see they’re ordering pieces for a conference or marketing campaign, we’ll reach out and ask how we can help.”

The company’s regular attendance at conferences and trade shows also helps forge relationships, especially with brands looking to make a special mark. “Charity organizations and healthcare companies alike find many reasons to include their logos and messaging on our products,” Andrew said. “We find them being used as conference giveaways, as sales tools, for community outreach, and more.”

Continued Education on Health Topics Beyond Microbes

The momentum behind GIANTmicrobes shows no signs of abating. The company continues to expand its store presence, with retailers connected to science education making up a particularly strong channel.

“The museum network is excellent for us. We sell to natural history museums, nature centers, science museums, aquariums, and also the bookstore market — especially independent and college booksellers,” Andrew said. “Ultimately, we want to be wherever the science geeks are.”

Even on the web, GIANTmicrobes is expanding. In response to feedback from educators, the company is bolstering educational content on the individual toy pages and adding videos, games, and infographics. Teachers increasingly use the site as a source of supplemental curricular material.

That momentum has translated into expanding product areas that go beyond the company’s original focus on disease-causing microbes. Mosquitoes and fleas, which act as disease vectors, are now part of the toy lineup, as are toys associated with family health topics such as vitamins. For example, the toy for Vitamin A, a key nutrient for healthy vision, sports a pair of glasses to help trigger a conversation about its role in developing bodies.

New product packages are also being introduced. The original 5- to 8-inch standalone toys are now accompanied by individual lines in larger sizes, and by mini versions the company offers in themed gift boxes.

A screenshot of various themed gift boxes GIANTmicrobes offers

GIANTmicrobes sells themed gift boxes that teach different life science stories.

“The themed boxes are a great way to tell a life science story,” Andrew said. Those interested in the facts of life, for example, can turn to the Let’s Get It On box, which includes an egg cell, a sperm cell, a stem cell, a zygote, and some DNA. With the Shakespeare Plays with Microbes box, collaborative learning is also possible, with the toys referencing psychology and health themes associated with the Elizabethan dramatist: a broken heart, madness, blood, a leech, and some pox.

There doesn’t seem to be an end to the GIANTmicrobes story. Perhaps because Drew Oliver’s original idea was so simple, elegant, and hilarious, enabling any topic in the life sciences to be translated into a plush toy. Over the past three years, the company has introduced almost 80 new toys, with many more on the horizon.

Through it all, the toys remain entertaining, educational, collectible — and special.

“We’re not like any other stuffed animal,” Andrew said. “A hundred companies are making Teddy bears. We’re the only one making an amoeba.”