Mike Marzetta says he has a lot of hobbies. At Minds-i Inc., of Liberty Lake, he's developed a toy construction system that combines most of them.
"I was always interested in models, construction sets, RC (radio-controlled) cars, hobby trains, and robotics," he says.
His standby hobby, which he says brought out the most creativity, was his collection of plastic building bricks.
"I kept going back to Lego," he says. "You could make anything you wanted, although you couldn't play with it when you were done."
Four years ago, Marzetta, who also is president of Liberty Lake contract parts manufacturer Altek Inc., invented the Minds-i construction system centered around plastic beams and connectors that can be formed into the chassis, frame, or foundation for a number of static, motorized, robotic, or RC toys.
Minds-i, which has focused so far on research and development, has sold some prototype kits, including for all four of its high-end "Marz" rovers prototypes, which it created and fine-tuned over the last eight months.
The company now is set to market its consumer products through its Web site starting next month, and it also has reached a deal with PCS Edventures!, a Boise developer of lab and technology programs for schools, which will handle sales and distribution of Minds-i products to the educational market, Marzetta says.
Unlike Lego bricks, Minds-i elements stay together during rugged play, he says.
Interchangeable pieces enable users to construct and modify creations of their own design ranging from stationary objects to high-performance vehicles and robots, Marzetta says.
The company occupies a two-desk work space tucked deep inside the Altek plant, at 22819 E. Appleway.
"Minds-i is a separate company, but Altek is kind enough to incubate it," Marzetta says. Altek also makes injection molds and manufactures plastic parts from them for the company.
Minds-i is funded by four investors including Marzetta and his wife, Christy.
The company has two employees, both product development engineers. Marzetta recruited one, Kriston Broxon, through a recommendation from an engineering instructor at Spokane Community College, and Broxon recommended the other employee, Levi Wilson.
When Marzetta invited them to job interviews, neither had conventional resumes. Broxon brought some drawings of robots to the interview, and Wilson displayed some Lego creations.
The company's CEO is Larry Bernstein, former president of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Toy Group. Christy Marzetta says Bernstein, who has his offices in Woodstock, Vt., had heard about Minds-i from a mutual business acquaintance in 2007 and traveled to Spokane at his own expense to look at the system and offer his opinion about it.
"He said he would tell us if it was great or if it was junk," she says. "He just fell in love with it, and he's been with us ever since."
The Marz rover is Minds-i's brightest star. The 14-pound, six-wheeled crawler, which is about the size of a small ice chest, debuted at an Eastern Washington University-sponsored robotics exhibition last May at West Valley High School. The rover, which has an independent suspension and power to all wheels, can crawl deftly over football-size obstacles. It was an instant hit at the event.
"About 50 kids were in a big circle, and 10 kids were lying down, asking to be run over by the rover," Mike Marzetta says. "You can't buy a better market-research group."
The rover also impressed PCS Edventures!, which announced in September that it will distribute Minds-i products worldwide to the educational market.
Richard Mussler-Wright, director of curriculum development at PCS, says the Minds-i system provides strength, versatility, and flexibility needed by high school students for advanced engineering applications in lab work.
Under an agreement between the two companies, PCS will use Minds-i products in applicable curricula and labs, and Minds-i will have preferred access to PCS's robotics technology for integration with the construction system.
Marzetta says PCS will accelerate Minds-i's plans to enter the educational market, and he's happy now to leave the planning for the use of its products in curricula to PCS. "We just want to make cool stuff," he says.
He says he also was impressed by PCS's programmable electronic brain technology that can be integrated with the Minds-i system to create robots that can perform certain functions, such as traveling over a surface in a predetermined pattern or accepting guidance from light, touch, and sound sensors. Robot programming is done through a computer via a drop-and-drag graphical interface, he says.
"I want people to be able to take it out and start learning through trial and error right away," he says. "I don't want them to have to read a manual or learn a computer programming language."
The inspiration for the rover came from Michael Sibbernsen, outreach coordinator for the NASA Nebraska Space Grant Consortium, part of a college and fellowship program that promotes and awards funds for aerospace research and education. Sibbernsen had seen a prototype six-wheel rock crawler on the Minds-i Web site and called Marzetta to see if Minds-i could construct a working replica of a Mars rover for a display he was working on for the Strategic Air and Space Museum, near Omaha, Neb.
Over the course of three months, Minds-i created its rover based on pictures and the design specifications for the Pathfinder Sojourner, NASA's first rover on Mars, Sibbernsen says.
Minds-i's Marz rover, named for both Marzetta and the red planet, is similar in appearance to its cousin in space, Sibbernsen says.
The Marz rover he bought, which he has nicknamed Ditto, is an attention-getter and a serious teaching aid, he says.
"So far Ditto has been a fantastic outreach tool," he says.
Marzetta says he expects the Minds-i system to appeal to both the educational and hobby markets.
"Right now, there's a big gap between education and hobby classes," he says.
For example hobby-class RC cars and trucks don't allow the user to create anything else with their parts, Marzetta says, "but they are super tough and fun."
While construction sets aimed at the education market allow some creativity, "a lot of educational stuff is kind of nerdy," he says. "It has rigid parts and you can build anything as long as it's square and ugly and not very fast."
For the consumer market, Minds-i will offer six or seven base kits, Marzetta says.
One will be a starter kit, with a selection of beams and connectors for creating static structures or combining with other hobby-store components. Another will be an entry-level RC race car kit priced at around $200. Another RC kit will allow the owner to build and modify a rock-crawler truck in four distinct variations and will be priced at about $400, Marzetta says.
At the high end, the Marz rover will cost more than $1,000, he says.
Because the system is designed to be compatible with hobby-market standards, it's not limited to components that come with the kits. "You can buy a brushless motor and make an RC truck go 70 mph," Marzetta says.
He says his goal for the RC kits is to be competitive with hobby store prices, although Minds-i will market mainly through its Web site initially, and will enter retail stores down the road.
"We used a sharp pencil trying to reduce the cost to get it to market and keep the price down," he says. "One of the big ways of keeping prices low is going consumer direct."
Although Marzetta declines to estimate when he expects Minds-i to be profitable, he says, "Our plan is to be cash-flow positive right out of the box. We intend to make money on everything we sell. That's how we've run Altek the last 30 years. Everything is paid for, and there's no long-term debt."
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