Bringing Curiosity to Market
Google “oobleck” and you’ll be rewarded with 319,000 results, including instructions on how to make the goopy substance (corn starch and water), background on its name (which comes from the 1947 Dr. Seuss book “Bartholomew and the Oobleck”) and featured appearances on both “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Ellen Show.” For those of you who aren’t already familiar with oobleck, local inventor Bill Zicker is hoping to change that with his new patent-pending modeling dough product, Oozeq™, pronounced “ooze-eck.” I95 BUSINESS was fortunate enough to catch up with Zicker recently to bring you an exclusive inside look at Oozeq’s journey from concept to market.
An Idea is Born
Oobleck caught Zicker’s attention some time ago, long before being featured on an episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” in which the characters were making the substance “dance” by placing it on top of a stereo sub-woofer. A lifelong inventor who already holds one patent, Zicker had wondered what else he could do with the material and initially thought it might make a fun game of “liquid catch.”
But when he tried to buy oobleck, Zicker was surprised to find the material was not available for purchase. While easy to make, Zicker says the suspension caused by mixing corn starch and water is only temporary and after about 10 minutes you are left with a “wet mess” that’s difficult to clean up. Zicker quickly realized it would be an interesting project to make a variation of oobleck that would be shelf stable and he could then market. Hence, the idea for Oozeq as a modeling dough was born.
While Zicker says making oobleck has become a “pretty standard second-to-sixth-grade science class experiment,” the science behind it is pretty complex, and he admits he had to turn to some expert chemists for help understanding how the material works. Oobleck is considered a non-Newtonian fluid, meaning that it does not conform to Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of how fluids behave. Rather, non-Newtonian fluids actually change their physical character when subjected to physical stress. Examples include ketchup, which becomes more liquid when you tap on the bottle, and Silly Putty, which left alone will melt into a puddle but tears like a solid if ripped quickly (called “shear thickening”) or shatters like glass when rolled into a ball and smashed with a hammer.
That brings us to Oozeq, which Zicker likens to modeling dough such as Play-Doh®, but with one key difference: its properties change depending on how it’s used. “If you stretch it slowly, it stretches and stretches into a long thin strand. If you pull it quickly it snaps and tears again like a solid. If you put it back in the container it will melt again,” says Zicker.
Zicker says his Oozeq is what’s called a metastable compound, which means it’s perfectly stable (and therefore marketable) until the material is put out of balance by some type of stress. “When you take it out of the container, it feels kind of like a marshmallow. But play with it – put it back in the container and leave it for a day or two, and it will completely melt into this sticky goop.” And like Play-Doh, it hardens completely within a couple of days if left exposed to air.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
A New Jersey native who has called Maryland home for the past 10 years, Zicker has been inventing long enough to know that most patents never make a dime. Despite this, since college he has actively focused on breaking into the field professionally. “The idea of Thomas Edison was always something I thought was more interesting than just punching a clock,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be neat to make something that was new?”
Zicker points out, “If you look at what’s around you, there are not that many raw materials. Most food is made out of corn or some corn product. Most things are made of petroleum-based plastics. Clothes are made from just a few natural and synthetic materials. There are a lot of forms these things take but not a lot of materials regular people – not NASA scientists – have access to on a daily basis.”
And after months of research and a number of experiments in the kitchen (“It took a little while,” Zicker jokes when asked how many attempts), he has undeniably come up with something that is entirely new. “Truthfully this is something that doesn’t exist. Some things like it exist, but this is one of the first things accessible to the average person that has come along in a long time. It is made out of common things, but this combination with these properties is one of the most unusual new products people have seen in a long time,” says Zicker.
“Nothing Occurs in a Vacuum”
As challenging as getting the product right may have been, Zicker says that was still the easy part. “One of, if not, the most important aspect of inventing something with the intention of selling it is you have to build a business. An invention doesn’t make a product or money – a business does that. Nothing occurs in a vacuum.”
And Zicker says assembling the right team is the way to build a successful business. “There’s no road map. You just have to figure out what the questions are you need answered, and if you can’t answer them, you need to find people who can. In my case I had to go find some chemists willing to help because they think it’s as interesting a project as I do. Until some point in the future – and it’s going to be a while before it’s profitable – at that point someone is going to get paid.”
In addition to finding the right chemist, Zicker says he had to find the right lawyers, the right companies that make machinery, the right industry association. Zicker says he even talked to the owner of a company that makes a similar product but is not a direct competitor who has been very helpful in providing advice to avoid some major pitfalls. Locally, Zicker credits Kathy Wajer and Jim Richardson from the Harford County Office of Economic Development with helping to link him to resources, including the Harford Business Incubator Center, which offers commercial space at a discounted rate.
FACTS About Oozeq
Zicker says he is most frequently asked two questions about Oozeq, so here they are along with his answers.
Will Oozeq be available in different colors?
The reason it’s only white is that all types of pigments – natural, synthetic, hypoallergenic, toxic – interact with and change the chemical composition of the product. Because of that complexity, the decision has been made to launch in just white, which also happens to be a good color to paint. We may look at introducing a pigmented material or possibly an accessory to color Oozeq, but that’s a second phase, maybe Christmas or even next summer.
Are you going to be on “Shark Tank?”
The “Shark Tank” people have not called me yet, and I am not in any hurry for them to.
And while Zicker actually formed his company last fall, his product didn’t hit the retail market until just recently. At press time, well-known retailer ThinkGeek had ordered 10 cases they will be selling through their catalog.
Oozing Into the Future
Although the product has a toy-like feel, Zicker sees Oozeq as having universal appeal and much broader future applications. An Art & Creative Materials Institute Approved Product, Oozeq is laboratory tested and certified to be non-toxic, meeting or exceeding safety standards and therefore safe for people of all ages. Oozeq is also corn based, gluten free, biodegradable and non-toxic, and comes in packaging that is biodegradable down to the plastic cups and foam inside the box.
All of this means it’s marketable safely to children, but Zicker points out ThinkGeek picked up his product because they think there is an adult market as well. “We are initially marketing this as an art and creative material – a craft product,” says Zicker, who calls that market easily accessible, but says there are other markets he is exploring, including medical and therapeutic use or even use in hydrogen fuel cells.
“We can’t do everything at once,” he acknowledges, and cites the numerous legal, regulatory and financial hurdles to these other markets. But he says the point is there are lots of exciting applications for Oozeq – both high tech and low tech, although he has decided to “approach human happiness as our first market.”
Zicker is philosophical about what he does, and shares this advice for aspiring inventors and business owners alike: “One thing I’ve learned about being an inventor is that an invention is not one idea. What people call an invention is a whole series of ideas and in some cases a combination of ideas that come together in just the right way to produce something that has not been done before and has some usefulness.”
He adds, “It wasn’t just I had an idea one day and boom. Sometimes you just have to figure out what you don’t know … you have to figure out the questions and then what are the answers. That process is not an easy one … it takes long-term persistence and creativity. You have to be willing to think of weird and different approaches to things. Not knowing what you’re working on can be an advantage because you don’t know what won’t work, so you might be willing to try it.”
For additional information on Oozeq, you can visit the product website at www.Oozeq.com and sign up for email updates. I95