Shannon Varcoe's product XYZ Building Sticks. Varcoe will be launching a Kickstarter for her product on May 10, 2016. (Ashley Strysko/B&W Staff)

A toy story: Student develops building toy that promotes creativity


Shannon Varcoe, ‘15, ’16G, always knew she wanted to be part of the toy industry. It was not until she came to Lehigh and started to take advantage of the courses and programs offered by the university that she realized she could create her own toy company.

“I found all the entrepreneurial parts of Lehigh and signed up for the minor and was just really, really interested in entrepreneurship,” Varcoe said.

As an undergraduate, Varcoe was an IDEAS major with a concentration in mechanical engineering and product design. Now, she is working on her one-year master’s of engineering in technical entrepreneurship.

Her product, ZYX building sticks — part of her company, TroubleMaker — is a set of connectable building sticks which promote creativity by providing no manual.

“One of the things you observe with her product is that it seems very simple, but it’s also very addictive,” said Joshua Ehrig, a professor of practice at the Baker Institute and Varcoe’s adviser for her Mountaintop project.

Varcoe came up with the idea for a toy that goes against the usual manual-required, gender-specific toy.

“I like it because it’s not taking ‘no’ for an answer and going against the status quo,” Varcoe said.

Varcoe can relate to the name of the company.

“I was definitely a troublemaker as a kid for sure,” she said. “As a kid, I was definitely one that would break the rules, push boundaries, but (I was) also very creative.”

The idea for the product came about in her sophomore year design class, where she was required to make a wooden sculpture. To do so, the students needed to select three words that would be characteristics of their projects. She got “small,” “minimal” and “prop.” Her professor thought those words together were not a favorable choice and was unsure of what she could make.

“The product definitely has evolved since then,” Varcoe said, “but that was the start of it.”

She has kept the sticks all-natural, not colored, so that it would not be gender-specific. She said she likes that her product has the specific mission in mind from the beginning because it is easy to implement this idea from the start. She said it will take larger companies more time to become gender-inclusive.

After her work in the design class, she created prototypes at Lehigh’s wood shop, but is looking at manufacturers in Pennsylvania for when she actually begins to sell them.

Chris Kauzmann, the innovations program manager for the Baker Institute, said he helped Varcoe make the first prototypes, as he has done many wood shop projects himself, including making furniture.

“I love her product,” Kauzmann said. “It’s engaging. It’s fun. It gives you the freedom to create stuff and allows you to want to do that. I like how simple it is.” He jokingly added that if you do not like what you made with blocks, you just take it down and build again.

Varcoe said she enjoys having kids try out her product. She visited the Da Vinci Science Center, where she let the children play with them.

“That’s always interesting because you’re getting a lot of kids working with it,” Varcoe said. “It’s funny to see what they make from them, and getting their honest feedback.”

Her love for children and her belief in the importance of giving them a tangible object to play with was very important to Varcoe when designing her toy. The abstractness of the sticks when they come together and the lack of a manual allows for the development of children’s imaginations.

In addition to working on ZYX building sticks, Varcoe said she wants to develop an anti-manual app that will lead children with open-ended prompts.

Although her target audience is 6- to 12-year-olds because of the spatial skills required, her toy is intriguing to people all ages and is also family-friendly.

Kauzmann said Varcoe participated in Make Lehigh Valley to promote her product. He said it was funny to watch parents compete with their children in building, because it the toy is engaging for all ages.

Kauzmann said he would get distracted by the toy in their meetings where they discussed the ZYX building sticks.

“We would always stop and just play with them and then 15 minutes later go back to the meeting,” Kauzmann said.

Varcoe is interested in making a 12-piece desk version of the toy for adults. She said that way, they can have something small to play with at work.

Throughout the development of her project, she has made use of resources available at Lehigh, especially the Baker Institute.

“There’s a lot of learning by doing (at Lehigh),” Ehrig said. “We take the students outside of the classroom and apply the concepts that they learn to their respective ideas.”

Varcoe said she did not really know what entrepreneurship actually was until she came to Lehigh.

“Once I found Baker Institute and entrepreneurship at Lehigh, I just dove in,” she said.

Varcoe enrolled in courses pertaining to entrepreneurship, one of which was taught by Ehrig.

“I got to witness this kind of tremendous progression of both maturity and passion with (Varcoe), not only of herself but her entrepreneurship venture,” he said.

After winning first place in the social venture category of the Eureka! Competition in 2014, Kauzmann said he encouraged Varcoe to participate in the first Launch Bay C Mountaintop program. She took his advice, and focused on branding, finding a target audience, and building a customer basis.

“That atmosphere at Mountaintop is one of my favorite things at Lehigh,” Varcoe said.

Kauzmann said even though the program lasts 10 weeks, this time can pass by quickly, so it is important for people to work efficiently. There are three tracks students can follow during Launch Bay C — creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Participating in things such as Mountaintop helped Varcoe see what she was working on was not just a classroom project, and it had potential to become an actual toy company.

Varcoe has going been to the International Toy Fair for two years. She said it is a great opportunity, but seeing all the toy industries is overwhelming.

“Instead of being afraid, I ask, ‘OK how can I differentiate myself?’” she said.

Through hard work and determination, Varcoe has left a mark at Lehigh. Ehrig believes Varcoe is a role model for upcoming students.

“Look no further than learning and understanding (Varcoe’s) progression as a student and entrepreneur here at Lehigh,” Ehrig said.

Around the last week of finals, Varcoe will launch a Kickstarter campaign to sell her product for the first time. The sets available will include a 12-, 24- and 48-piece sets. Varcoe said the Kickstarter is a lot of work, but she is really excited. Her goal is to raise $8,000 for production of the toys.

Varcoe hopes, after the success of ZYX building sticks, to expand TroubleMaker to more toys with the same kind of ideas of being gender neutral, and also wants to continue to enhance the building sticks.

“I can’t wait until she becomes wildly successful and builds her house out of (ZYX building) sticks,” Kauzmann said.

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