The Tribbles arrived at Kayleigha Zawacki’s house just as the pandemic was shutting everything down in March 2020. Not just one or two of the furry little creatures — about 400.
Tribbles nearly took over the starship Enterprise in a 1967 episode of “Star Trek,” creating headaches for Captain Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew. But in 2020, the toy Tribbles that Zawacki and her husband Jay had designed carried an additional risk. “They were manufactured in Hong Kong and shipped from China,” Jay says. Because of the couple’s concerns about COVID on surfaces, they quarantined the boxes in the garage for two weeks, to make sure the toys were safe to send to buyers.
Starting a toy company is a little bit nuts in normal times. But doing it in the midst of a global pandemic? And at a price point of $74, which appeals more to adult fans of Star Trek than kids with allowance money to spend? Mr. Spock would have pilloried the illogic of it all.
But Kayleigha says she never intended to start a company. She and Jay are lighting designers for theater productions; Jay has a full-time job at Newton North High School, and she is wrapping up a master’s degree in lighting design at Boston University.
As a child growing up in Washington state, Kayleigha says, her dad showed her classic episodes of the Star Trek TV series on videotape. “I wanted a pet Tribble,” she says. But she didn’t just want a simple stuffed toy — she wanted it to be able to purr when it was happy or shriek when it encountered a Klingon. As an adult, “I finally decided to make one,” she says. “I taught myself to do the C++ coding, and Jay learned how to solder.” They built a prototype in their living room, envisioning it as a smart toy that could be put into different modes with an app. One example: “watchdog” mode, so you can put the Tribble on top of a laptop or another item and it screams if someone tries to move it.
“Once we had a prototype,” Jay says, “family members and friends were asking, ‘Are you going to make more? Are you going to sell them?’ So we decided to keep going.”
Besides, how hard could it be for a husband and wife with no prior experience making toys to convince CBS to give it the rights to make a Star Trek-branded product?
They named their company Science Division — a reference to the group of crew members who perform medical and scientific research in the Star Trek universe. Kayleigha had a Tribble keychain, so she got in touch with the company that made it. That company made the introduction to a licensing executive at CBS. But the keychain company, she says, was nervous about undertaking the software development that creating an app would require. “The licensing director loved it, and said, ‘What if we just give you the license — would you make this?’” Kayleigha recalls.
They worked out a deal that gave Science Division the right to produce official “app-enabled interactive Tribbles” tied to all of the different Star Trek shows that the creatures have appeared in, including “Deep Space Nine.” They had to pay an advance upfront, and they pay royalties on each product sold. But that allows them to use the Star Trek logo on their packaging and advertising.
A Connecticut consulting firm, Design Innovation, helped to design the toy’s electronic innards. “When you pick it up, it responds to you,” Kayleigha says. “It has algorithms so it makes its own trills if you leave it sitting, just like it’s alive. After an hour, it goes to sleep.”
They took out a home equity loan to pay for the first batch of Tribbles — an order of 2,500. In July 2019, they traveled to a Star Trek fan convention in Las Vegas with three of their prototype Tribbles and started taking preorders. A key piece of the company’s marketing plan was to bring the Tribbles to comic book conventions and other events where Trekkies congregated.
But with COVID causing the cancellation of all those events in 2020, “we had to pivot,” Kayleigha says. They organized two of their own online conventions, featuring actors from the TV shows and Star Trek’s science adviser, Erin Macdonald, as speakers. They invited other merchandise vendors to participate. This fall, as in-person conventions began taking place again around New England, Science Division rented booths in Boxborough, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; and Manchester, N.H. They did the best at Rhode Island Comic Con in Providence.
“It’s a huge challenge to get into the business, but it looks like they’ve got a unique product,” says Chris Byrne, an independent toy industry analyst and consultant based in New York. But the price point of Science Division’s Tribbles — $74, or $120 for a jumbo-sized version — means that “they are going after the adult Star Trek fan who has the disposable income to spend on an app-connected Tribble,” he says. Science Division’s approach — selling directly to fans via its website and at conventions — is a smarter strategy than trying to get retailers to stock its product, Byrne said.
When I spoke to the Zawackis earlier this month, Jay told me that the first batch of tan-colored Tribbles was almost sold out, and the second shipment hadn’t yet arrived. A few days later, the Science Division website showed that there were none left in inventory. The new silver-colored Tribbles were in Massachusetts, on their way to a warehouse that Science Division rents in Acton — but the duo had no information about whether they’d arrive before Christmas. They finally showed up last Thursday. That meant dedicating the weekend before Christmas to packing them into boxes to try to ship the backorders as soon as possible.
Is there a long-term plan for other products, or to grow the company, which still consists of just Kayleigha and Jay? “It’s not that there aren’t plans,” Kayleigha says, citing the challenges of building a business in the pandemic era. “We’re just constantly having to reevaluate from moment to moment. And that has worked for us thus far.” She says that she and Jay haven’t taken a day off since June.
The vision in starting Science Division, she says, “was always to make a thing that we as fans loved, and share it with other fans. If it takes us to a place where the company gets bigger, that will be great. But we haven’t hung our hat on that hook.”
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.