UCSD rings up sale in toy market
Thomas Bewley, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the director of the coordinated robotics lab at UCSD, developed much of the technology that powers, balances and controls MiP, a toy robot that's being introduced by WowWee. — Howard Lipin
UC San Diego is learning that making money can be child’s play.
For the first time, the university has licensed some of its technology to a well-known toy maker, which will use it to power and control a zippy-and-trippy little robot called MiP. WowWee, whose U.S. operations are based in La Jolla, has been logging a brisk pace of orders for the $99 toy, which will go on shelves at Best Buy starting in May.
The University of California San Diego could earn about $1 million in tech-transfer fees on MiP, and more riches may follow. The school plans to help WowWee develop a half-dozen or so other products, hoping to create a fee-generating blockbuster in the nation’s $22 billion toy industry.
It’s a happy tale that arose, in part, from a near tragedy involving a WowWee executive. And the licensing represents an effort by UC San Diego to earn fees and royalties on a broader range of its inventions, or intellectual property. The campus pulled in $19.6 million in fiscal 2012, most of it for advances and discoveries in health, medicine and telecommunications.
“MiP is a great opportunity; it’s something we have not done before,” said David Gibbons, assistant director of physical science licensing at UC San Diego. “We don’t have any mainstream consumer products.
“Over the past five years, the National Science Foundation and (National Institutes of Health) have been asking for more commercialization. That pressure has come down to faculty, who are being asked to show more public uses of their work.”
UC San Diego is moving that way, drafting plans for a robotics institute that will focus on consumer-oriented products. MiP — which stands for Mobile Inverted Pendulum — fits the bill. The toy is a two-wheel, self-balancing robot that can be controlled with hand gestures or commands from smartphones. It rolls at a quick clip, it can dance to scores of songs and it plays a variety of games.
“It’s also hackable,” said Peter Yanofsky, who runs WowWee’s operations in the United States. “This isn’t just some random toy that will be produced in China. This will get kids into science.”
Yanofsky knows toys. He cofounded WowWee in 1982 with his brother, Richard. They later introduced popular toys such as Robosapien, which sold 6 million units, and FlyTech Dragonfly, which Time magazine named as one of the best inventions of the year in 2007.
Gibbons introduced Yanofsky to UC San Diego researchers about that same time. There were no collaborations to be made then, but they had a mutual interest in amateur boxing and stayed in touch.
Yanofsky later suffered damage to both of his retinas while boxing and ended up at the university’s Shiley Eye Center, where he met opthalmologist Bill Freeman, who saved his vision.
“It it wasn’t for Bill, I would be walking around with a seeing eye dog right now,” said Yanofsky, who became heavily involved in learning about the school’s research projects. About three years ago, Gibbons steered him to UC San Diego mechanical engineer Tom Bewley, who was making big advances in rapidly prototyping lightweight but durable robots and improving their mobility. His projects included a 3-D thermal mapping robot designed for use by firefighters.
The two guys clicked. Yanofsky loved Bewley’s determination to find ways to use reliable toy-grade motors and parts that would enable MiP to do many things. Bewley loved Yanofsky’s focus on toys that promote science and engineering — a passion that deepened for Bewley after his wife gave birth to their first child.
“It certainly gives you a new perspective,” said Bewley, who is sort of like MiP, full of pep and personality. “I want to give my son toys he can engage with, not just look at.”
On Thursday, it was clear that Bewley also wanted a toy that he would personally enjoy. The same went for Gibbons and Yanofsky. The three men met at WowWee’s office in La Jolla and sort of got lost in playing with MiP, a 7.5-inch, 12.3-ounce toy that utters words like “whoaa” when it tips over.
“It’s not very often that we get to work with a product that has some fun factor to it,” Gibbons said. “We’re putting robotics in the hands of kids at the stage where they are either tuning in or tuning out math and science. So this is an opportunity to make science and math more hands-on at an early stage.”
Yanofsky agreed, saying: “This will be the new look of robotics going forward.”