It’s been almost a year since Ilana Ben-Ari of Twenty One Toys took first place in OCAD University’s 2014 Imagination Catalyst Pitch Competition. World Creativity and Innovation Week (April 15 to 21) seems like a great time to check in and see what’s been happening since then.
The Empathy Toy
Twenty One Toys’ signature product is the Empathy Toy. Originating from Ben-Ari’s industrial design thesis project at Carleton University, the toy comprises wooden puzzle pieces with a variety of textures, shapes and colours. One or more players take a pre-made pattern and they must explain it to one or more other players – who have a set of identical, but loose, pieces – so that they can assemble the very same pattern.
But here’s the rub: all the puzzle-players wear blindfolds! The blindfolds come off when the assemblers think they have solved the puzzle. At that point, everyone – including silent observers – discusses what happened during the game. As Ben-Ari (Twenty One Toys’ founder and lead designer) notes, “that’s often the most instructive part of the exercise.”
Since joining the Imagination Catalyst’s one-year Take It to Market incubator program, the Empathy Toy has gained serious traction. The first 1,000 units sold out in December 2014, and a second batch of 1,000 arrived from the factory in April 2015. This swift spread – the toy is in use in more than 800 schools worldwide – has been boosted by the many positive reports in the press, including in The Guardian, Fast Company and Time.
“One of the most positive aspects of the Imagination Catalyst is the contact it gives me with leading entrepreneurs,” says Ben-Ari. “These inspiring people share their experience with me and give me great advice.” In particular, Ben-Ari points to the influence of Doreen Dotto and Lahav Gil. The president of uKloo Kids, Dotto has given Ben-Ari direction on wholesale pricing, certification and legal issues, working with distributors and pricing models. For his part, Gil, the CEO of the Kangaroo Group and co-founder of Bauhaus Tech Ventures, shared his knowledge of mass production, partnerships and distribution models.
“These generous entrepreneurs have been available to jump on the phone and give me advice on the challenges they faced when they were growing,” Ben-Ari says. “It’s been incredibly valuable as we face the hurdles associated with the expanding demand for our toys.”
The next horizon
When Ben-Ari began, she conceived of the Empathy Toy as something that would be used largely by elementary-school students. She and her team soon discovered, however, that older people enjoyed and learned from it. As a result, the firm is about to launch the Empathy Toy for corporate use as well as training and professional development workshops for employee groups.
Photograph of Ilana Ben-Ari by Laynna Meyler