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An Interview with Tim Kehoe

[TOY INVENTOR]
by Rachel Khong
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Tim Kehoe

[TOY INVENTOR]
by Rachel Khong
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Tim Kehoe

Rachel Khong
11 Snaps

Tim Kehoe is a toy inventor living in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose many inventions include the Aquaradio, a device that allows children to talk underwater. The founder of Ascadia Inc., he was recently awarded the title of distinguished alumnus at his elementary school alma mater for his invention of Zubbles, the world’s first nonstaining colored bubble. In the history of bubbles, there has been nothing quite like them: they are nearly opaque colored orbs that do not stain after popping—a marvel that, until now, had been understood to be scientifically impossible.

In a regular bubble, surfactants lessen surface tension and allow the bubble to form. Kehoe learned that a colored bubble would require a dye that was able to bond to surfactants, that would disperse evenly, and—on top of all that—that would not stain once the bubbles burst. The trouble was, this dye did not yet exist. With the help of dye chemist Ram Sabnis, Kehoe arrived at this groundbreaking color technology only after nearly twelve years of failed attempts involving Jell-O, ink, and many, many dollars. Zubbles are scheduled to hit shelves in spring 2008, and will come in purple, pink, blue, and teal. Additional colors will follow, Kehoe explains, if this initial run is successful.

This conversation took place over two cellular telephones in the fall of 2006, braving lots of mysterious but persistent static. At the time, Kehoe was hard at work developing a new kind of search engine—“more like a ‘discovery engine’”—that his wife assures him will be better than Google.

—Rachel Khong

I. “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING SHE’D EVER SEEN”

THE BELIEVER: According to a Popular Science article about Zubbles, at one point in your research, you were stained blue!

TIM KEHOE: Ten years into it, we came up with a washable bubble formula. We thought, This is it. Before we did that we decided to run a focus group test, so we brought out twenty-four of my nieces and nephews and my kids. We hired a video crew and a photographer and I went down to the local magic shop and rented these huge, theater-quality bubble machines. They’re great big bubble machines that are controlled by computers.

I remember that morning I was mixing them— I was mixing them in my garage, all this stuff had always been done in my kitchen, and now we were trying to make big batches of it—so I’m out in my garage and a whole bunch of chemicals splash up in my face and I end up throwing up and I stain my eyes blue and my skin was all blue.

BLVR: Are you still blue?

TK: No, it cleared out. It looked pretty bizarre; I wish I’d taken a picture. We dumped this stuff into these bubble machines and we fired it up and one of the mothers starts crying. She says it’s the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen; all these bubbles are filling the air like little balloons going up in the sky. The kids are standing in front of the bubble machine, and even though it’s washable—it’d wash off your skin—there was a bunch of stuff it wouldn’t wash off of. It wouldn’t wash off concrete; it wasn’t coming off of leather shoes. The mothers were just horrified so we realized we couldn’t go to market with the product.

We had to get serious about the science of this thing and get something that was going to disappear. At that point there were two technologies that would disappear—that were known to do this—but one of them wasn’t water soluble, and the other one involved outside sources to disappear, like heat or light. I’m sure you’ve seen, like, the shirts that change color with the body heat, remember those? Sunglasses that change color when you walk outside.

BLVR: Cereal spoons that change color in milk?

TK: I think that’s different, but yeah, same principle. It was just going to have to rely on time, and that didn’t exist. I had some ideas but I didn’t have the technical capabilities to pull it off, so we put an ad in Monster for a PhD chemist. We interviewed a whole bunch, and most of them said that you can’t even color a bubble. Actually there’s a website up today—that’s still up—that says you can’t color a bubble, they have a whole page devoted to the science as to why you can’t do it, and all these PhDs were telling me “you can’t do it.” I showed them a picture and they thought I Photoshopped it. They thought it was fake.

We found one guy who said, “Yeah, we can do that, it’ll take six months.” I told him my theories as to how I thought we could do this and he said, “Well, I’m going to need a lab,” and I said, “Well, all right, I’m going to have to get a lab,” and I figured, how much is a lab going to cost? Maybe twenty thousand dollars. That was way off. I mean, there were pieces of equipment that were at least a hundred thousand dollars. We needed a lab that week and there was just no lab space available that quick. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in St. Paul had just vacated their building, so they volunteered to rent us their old forensic lab. It had drains on the floor because of the autopsies and things.

So we ended up in this really kind of creepy old lab. Most of our research was done in the old trace evidence lab, and it was just really bizarre times. There was a vault in the room next door where one of the janitors had found that the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had left a whole kilo of coke they forgot about when they moved out. It was just really bizarre. We were in this old morgue, essentially, making colored bubbles. But six months into it, we ended up with the world’s first disappearing colored bubble.

II. “HE SHOULD BE BROWN.”

BLVR: Was there a specific moment when you started getting interested in bubbles?

TK: I remember how it came about. I was sitting down on the floor of my girlfriend’s apartment—now she’s my wife, but at the time she was my girlfriend—I was just filling notebooks full of ideas, toy ideas. Back in those days I could come up with a dozen toys a day, and I drew on the page this picture of a bubble wand that blew a whole bunch of bubbles and then connected them together in the hopes of making a bubble teddy bear that would float away, which was very unrealistic at the time. But then I remember thinking, Well, he should be brown if he’s going to be a teddy bear, so I came up with the idea to make colored bubbles. Literally the next day I went down to the convenience store down the street and bought some Jell-O, and I bought some Kool-Aid and some food coloring and, you know, figured I’d go back and make this happen and figured I’d be rich within a matter of weeks and that was it. It ended up being the beginning of what was a twelve-year journey to get it to happen.

BLVR: What happened to the teddy-bear thing?

TK: Nothing. I never pursued it. I don’t think it would actually work.

BLVR: It sounds like it could be possible, maybe.

TK: Maybe. I licensed about a dozen of the four hundred and some toys that I’ve invented so a lot of them have just ended up sitting on the shelf.

BLVR: What other toy ideas have you had?

TK: The very first one I ever had was a thing called the Flatball, which was a Frisbee that popped into a ball. That kind of kicked it off, and then along the way there were all kinds of weird… I had sand that would harden when you heated it up so you could make sand sculptures; I had footballs that, instead of catching them, they would bite onto you: they were called Bitin’ Balls; just tons of stuff. So I licensed a whole bunch of these, about a dozen things that, for one reason or another, never made it to the shelves but got as far as getting in and getting licensing.

BLVR: What kind of toys did you like when you were a kid?

TK: I had Evel Knievel toys that I loved—the Evel Knievel car that had a parachute that popped out? My ultimate favorite was the Evel Knievel motorcycle; you’d rev him up and he’d go flying across the room.

BLVR: What’d you guys say in the Monster ad?

TK: I remember the title was “Are you a chemical wizard?” To tell you the truth, I wrote an ad and, like, nobody responded at all. And then one of my partners rewrote the ad to be much more marketing and a lot less scientific and then we had, like, four hundred applicants.

BLVR: Did it mention the bubbles?

TK: No, no. Even in the initial interview we didn’t tell them what we were up to. I had never told anybody, all those years, what I was doing. I mean, I didn’t even tell my mom. Other than my wife, I always kept my inventions secret; I still do. All my inventions stay top secret until they’re done. Legally, if you disclose something, you probably can’t patent it later. I don’t want my mom to sign an NDA so I just don’t tell her.

BLVR: How’d you meet your girlfriend/wife?

TK: We met in high school. It’s kind of an important part of the story just because I don’t think I’d be doing toys if I hadn’t met her. I was going to an all-boys school and she was going to an all-girls school, and then the two schools merged our senior year. She was dating a kid named Chris Girsch whose dad was Charlie Girsch, who’s a famous toy inventor, and Sherri and I became friends. We went over to pick him up one day, and we pulled up to this mansion. I mean, it was literally one of the biggest houses in town—this huge mansion on this whole row of mansions, and I said, “God,”you know, “what does Chris’s dad do?” She said, “Well, he’s a toy inventor.” So at that point I was like, I think I want to be a toy inventor! You can actually do that and make a living?

So Sherri and I started dating and she had this huge Italian family, and Pictionary had just kind of come out and was popular and we’d play that and Balderdash… So I thought I wanted to invent board games. I tried that for a while, unsuccessfully. I invented some really horrible games… I wanted them to have some social value as well, so my very first game was called Save the Earth or Save the Planet, I don’t remember which. The kids went around and recycled things in an effort to save the planet. I got so many rejection letters. Everybody said that it was just awful and that educational games don’t sell, and so I quit doing the educational stuff and started doing sort of wacky, weird toys.

BLVR: And your wife has been supportive this whole time? She never thought you were crazy or anything?

TK: She’s always been unbelievably supportive. There were a lot of days where, I’m sure, a lot of people questioned whether we were ever going to have some success, but she always believes this stuff is possible. She’s always had faith in me. Right now I’m back in the basement building a search engine, and there are days where it seems impossible, and she’s always the first to encourage me: “No, this is awesome! Keep going! This is better than Google! It’s going to be so cool.”

BLVR: How many kids do you have?

TK: We have four. Nine, seven, five, and three; two boys and two girls. They’re perfect for prototype testing.

BLVR: So you’ve tested toys on them?

TK: They get to play with all the toys I never sold. They’re all sitting down in the basement. They grew up with colored bubbles. They’ve had them their whole lives. They don’t know the difference.

III. “ALIEN BALLS”

BLVR: Have you been really obsessed with anything else, besides bubbles?

TK: Oh, yeah. There was a video game that I spent three years working on that I got done but haven’t done anything much with. I was pretty obsessed with that. It’s usually whatever I’m on at the moment. Right now I’m working on this search engine and that’s kind of eating up all my thoughts and time at the moment. I’ve got ideas for kids’ books that have been piling up over the years and I just haven’t had time to get to them, so I’m hoping someday to sit down and write a couple of those books. I’ve got a big invention that I’ve been picking away on for a couple years and I think that one will probably beat the bubbles in how long it’ll take us, if ever. It’s something that might not be possible but it might be twenty, thirty years away. That one’s not a toy, but I could see how the technology could be used in toys.

BLVR: So this new color technology, that’s going to be in soap and toothpaste soon?

TK: Yeah, we signed a deal with a major consumer products company to put it in hand soap. Sounds like it’ll be a little while before the toothpaste hits the market, because that stuff takes a long time to get through all the regulations. Can’t you imagine kids brushing their teeth with Shrek green and their whole mouth is foaming green and then you keep brushing for two minutes and then it’s all back to clear?

BLVR: What other cool stuff have you done with bubbles?

TK: Along the way I invented all kinds of bubbles and lost a lot of them because I didn’t know what I did. I had bubbles that bounced and those were really cool. I blew ten thousand bubbles over the years; I’d blow them in the bathtub to see if they were colored. One day I blew these bubbles and they bounced, like superballs, in the bathtub. I could never re-create them. I never took notes. I’m really bad at that. It was just, a little more of this, a little more of that. They were bouncing, but I couldn’t repeat it.

BLVR: Did those eventually, uh, dissolve?

TK: Yeah. Well, they’d sit there for days, you know, and they were bouncy. I have these really cool glow-in-the-dark bubbles that are just so amazing they’re like… you blow them in a dark room and they light up the room, they’re just bizarre.

BLVR: Whoa.

TK: Yeah, I invented them about a year ago but we can’t launch them because there’s a patent that they kind of interfere with. That patent expires in a couple years so I think after a couple years we’ll do something with them. But they’re just amazing, I mean, they’re like alien balls!

IV. THE FUTURE OF TOYS

BLVR: How do you feel about balloons? Do you think that Zubbles are an improvement on balloons?

TK: I think balloons will go away and people will wonder because they’ll be replaced… No, I’m just kidding.

BLVR: It might happen! It could happen!

TK: I don’t know. Wouldn’t that be weird? But they’re different. It’s so bizarre when you see the bubble, especially because you didn’t grow up with it. It’s going to seem so alien-pod-like for you to see this thing floating around. It’s really a trip, especially when we make them dark so you can’t see through them. It doesn’t seem natural. But there’s probably still room for balloons in the world.

BLVR: Like your kids, they grew up with colored bubbles. What if, you know, in a couple years, all kids will have grown up with colored bubbles and they’ll just be normal?

TK: It’s weird. It’s odd to think you can make such an impact on kids’ lives like that. Someday it’s: “Of course you pick your favorite color! Why wouldn’t you?” “We didn’t have that. We were robbed of that when we were kids.” I always joke that someday it’ll come back around. Won’t it be funny when somebody comes back out with clear bubbles and says, “Look, we made them invisible!” and everybody’s like, “Wow, clear—that’s awesome!”

BLVR: You should save those glow-in-the-dark bubbles for a couple decades so when the color thing gets old…

TK: Oh, I’ll keep it up my sleeve for a while. Absolutely.

BLVR: In the process of creating Zubbles, did you come up with any really good bubble formulas, in terms of how many parts soap and water it takes to make a really long-lasting bubble?

TK: Oh yeah, totally. Have you ever played with a product called “Catch-A-Bubble”? They’re the bubble that lasts a long time.

BLVR: I think I’ve heard of it. How long do they last? Like an hour?

TK: Yeah, I think they last for hours. We came up with some along the way that lasted for weeks. They just sit around and they harden. We came up with tons and tons of bubble formulas. Unfortunately, we probably know more about bubbles than most people should.

BLVR: What are your thoughts on the future of toys?

TK: I think the heyday of toy inventors that invent mechanical toys that do amazing things like dolls that do the hula hoop, those days—the glory days—are gone, because so much of it now is high-tech. There are fewer and fewer people who can do it and still make an impression. We put over two million dollars into a toy—you can’t do that in your basement, you know?

BLVR: What do you think is next in toy making? Do you think it’s going to be video games forever?

TK: Well, obviously, video games are kind of where it’s at nowadays. And, I mean, they’re amazing. And they continue to be more amazing every year. I remember, when I was younger, going from Nintendo to Sega thinking, Wow, look at this! And now you turn one of those on and you can’t believe anybody ever touched it. There’s companies doing some really innovative stuff with low technology too, and there’s an age, that age of four, where you’re not necessarily ready to play the video game all day, and most kids are hopefully always going to want to play with some toys. I mean, you take things like the Super Soaker. That was a great invention. It was just pressurized air, but where would we be without Super Soakers?

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