Toy-Making Brings Out the Kid in Creative Alumni Duo

Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Michael Gramelspacher

Electrical engineering alumnus Michael Gramelspacher, co-founder of SG Labs, has been having fun designing toys, like Lil’ Gleemerz creatures, Mattel Inc.’s 2018 Girls Toy of the Year.

The “Toy Story” movies may have revealed that toys have a secret life of their own, but it’s the creativity of Michael Gramelspacher and Rory Sledge that brings today’s toys to life through sounds, lights and movements.

The 2001 graduates have turned their urge to invent things into a career devising many popular, technology-rich toys, like the Lil’ Gleemerz creatures, Mattel Inc.’s 2018 Girls Toy of the Year.

The Imaginext Jurassic World T-Rex toy, marketed by Fisher-Price, and the Yellies! voice-activated spider toys, carried by the Hasbro brand, also were developed by SG Labs, the duo’s St. Louis area-based enterprise.

Gramelspacher, an electrical engineer and Sledge, a computer engineer, were the creators behind the playful interactivity of the Lil’ Gleemerz line of electronic furry friends.

“We came up with the idea of a light-up, interactive tail – something with a long tail that has lights in it,” explains Gramelspacher.

With their experience and engineering background, the pair knew technology was coming around to the point where that kind of concept — and the toy’s ability to play games and respond to sounds — could be produced cost-effectively. What kind of tail? Well, what animals are known for their long tails?

“We interpreted it as a ring-tailed lemur,” Gramelspacher says.

The inventors sent their concept to their contacts at Mattel in 2017, and the company thought the idea was a winner. Designers there transformed the original lemur appearance into more of a fantasy character, but the final result retained the light-up tail and interactive game concepts at the heart of the invention. Lil’ Gleemerz ended up on several lists of last year’s hot toys.

The toy idea flow can work in both directions, according to Gramelspacher. “We approach companies with an idea. Sometimes they’re just drawings or more typically we’ll build a prototype,” he says. In other situations, a toy company might contact the inventing community with a specific need, such as toys designed to coincide with the future release of a kid-oriented movie.

“Most of the major toy companies have an open innovation policy,” Gramelspacher says. That doesn’t mean anybody and everybody can submit a toy concept, but the companies know great ideas aren’t limited to the minds of their in-house design teams. SG Labs collaborates with long-time partner Bang Zoom Design on many concepts, including the T-Rex and Yellies toys. “We’ve been doing this for over a decade and have fairly close relationships with toy companies, and know the kinds of things they’re looking for.”

The key to success for SG Labs is coming up with concepts that are new, different, fun and technologically feasible. For instance, Speech Breakers is a Hasbro game that features voice-jamming technology.

The beauty of the toy creation business is that Gramelspacher and Sledge get to focus their attention on the things they do best and enjoy the most – concept creation – and let other people handle the rest of the details. The alumni duo’s toy design lab includes a full model shop, with 3D printing technology.

Partners such as graphic designers assist with the creative concepts, and integrated circuit manufacturers provide components that deliver the required functionality at an affordable price point. The business partners know from experience what a particular computer chip can do, and what it can’t.

This would seem to be the perfect career situation for engineers who love the thrill of creating something, really anything.

“I had no idea I would be in the toy industry,” Gramelspacher admits. “I just wanted to invent. I didn’t know what.”