February 9, 2011 in Business, Region

From Minds-i, construction kits that inspire students and hobbyists

Liberty Lake company has spent five years developing product
By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. Bart Rayniak photoBuy this photo

Inventor Mike Marzetta holds a six-wheel-drive ATV, which uses Minds-i’s patented system of interchangeable “quick lock” construction elements. Minds-i users can create, modify and re-create vehicles, robots and machines of their own design.
(Full-size photo)

On the Web: For more information and videos, go to www.mymindsi.com.

About 30 high school juniors and seniors are building robots and contraptions at the Spokane Skills Center on the city’s North Side.

They’re using, among other things, a number of construction kits made by Liberty Lake inventors Mike and Christy Marzetta. As they click the kits into shape and attach motors and sensors, the students learn key lessons in mechanics and physics, teacher Rob Worcester said.

The classroom kits are the brainchild of Minds-i, a Liberty Lake startup created by the Marzettas about five years ago. Worcester not only loves the kits, he believes the Marzettas have developed a tool that can assist educators to inspire students to learn key skills that will help them find manufacturing jobs later.

Worcester likens the kits to “Legos on steroids.” For a fraction of the cost of more complicated robotics kits, the sets hatched in the Marzettas’ garage help Worcester’s students focus on how to design and build a project step by step – something that’s not always easy in vocational classes, he said.

Mike Marzetta is president of Liberty Lake-based Altek Inc., a contract manufacturing firm founded by his father, Al Marzetta, 35 years ago.

Since boyhood Marzetta has loved constructing models and building radio-controlled toys.

Working at Altek, Marzetta has seen several startups that came through his firm and turned out successful products. He and Christy decided to build their own company, with the goal of making a construction kit that combined the best of other systems.

After five years of testing and finding backing, they launched their first products a little more than a month ago. They’ve sold about 30 varieties of kits, from basic construction sets with dozens of plastic connectors and beams to the kind of advanced solar-powered rovers or robots that Worcester uses at the skills center.

The firm’s innovative component is the basic plastic connector, a simple but elegant method to put pieces together from different angles and hold them firmly in place.

And while educators are embracing the new system, the product initially was developed with hobbyists in mind.

“I wanted to develop something in the RC (radio-controlled) hobby-construction category that lets you build anything your mind’s eye can see,” Marzetta said. “And then power it up, test it, then take it apart and use it to build something else.”

The Marzettas lined up Larry Bernstein, a former executive vice president from toy and game company Hasbro Inc., to step in as CEO. Bernstein, who lives in Vermont, visited the Marzettas several years ago to look at the kits. He left blown away, Bernstein said.

But the business plan has had to move slowly, as the Marzettas have declined to sell too much of their stake to outside investors. So far they’ve invested a huge chunk of their own money in the precision tooling required to make the kit parts, and obtaining and filing for U.S. and international patents has cost more than $100,000.

Bernstein said once the economy rebounds, Minds-i should be able to line up financing that will let it move to the next step: ramping up manufacturing to help bring down the unit cost of the kits.

“Mike is a very passionate, totally committed guy,” Bernstein said. “He’s taking the proper approach for now, getting this into the hands of early adopters. And when they find it and get others excited about it, the rest of the investment needed will come in.”

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