LEWISTON — The idea bounced around for a while.
Bob Houvener and Michele Hermsen called it TheO SmartBall: a child’s ball that houses a smartphone. Part toy, part educational tool.
But the brother- and sister-in-law, owners of New Hampshire-based educational toy company Physical Apps, couldn’t find anyone to make TheO SmartBall. The concept was good; the execution was a problem.
“We wanted to have a very high-quality product. And so we started out with manufacturers in the U.S. Then we tried overseas,” Houvener said. “Then we came back to the U.S.”
The solution, it turned out, was not in China. It was in Lewiston, at Jones & Vining.
“That just blew us away, where we could walk in, show them our problem and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we can see why that wouldn’t work.’ We accomplished more in weeks than we had in months,” Houvener said.
Now, TheO SmartBall is becoming a reality and the toy company has signed with two Lewiston manufacturers and one distributor, and will open its own office on Lisbon Street in Lewiston.
“This is a New Hampshire company that was looking across the world for partners. A hundred and fifty miles away they were able to find what they needed,” said Doug Ray, spokesman for the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. “It’s a win-win.”
Physical Apps was founded in 2011 by Hermsen, a Connecticut teacher, and Houvener, an entrepreneur. The company’s main product is TheO SmartBall, a foam ball with a space for a smartphone. It also offers apps that use the motion sensing and sound effect capabilities of smartphones to turn the ball into a musical instrument, make it part of a game or turn it into a teaching tool.
Company officials spent months looking for a manufacturer to make the required ball. None worked out.
“Our foam designer, who has been doing this for about 20 years, finally said, ‘You know, there’s this little place up in Lewiston, Maine, called Jones & Vining. They’re mainly in the shoe industry, but they know their stuff.'”
Jones & Vining had more than 80 years of foam and manufacturing experience with shoe soles and industrial products. It was able to do what no other manufacturer could.
“They asked us if we would undertake it as a development project, and we did,” said Rick House, technical director for Jones & Vining. “We were able to solve a couple of problems. The biggest one was a lightweight ball that was tear resistant.”
With Jones & Vining’s help, the company was able to create a ball light enough that a child could easily toss it but strong enough to keep an expensive smartphone safe as the ball is thrown, bounced or rolled.
Soon after, Physical Apps realized it needed distribution help. Jones & Vining pointed a couple of miles down the road, to Great Lakes Fulfillment Service in Lewiston.
Great Lakes, too, had the experience Physical Apps needed. The 11-year-old distributor has handled packing and shipping for companies worldwide whose clothes, shoes, games and other products are ordered online or through infomercials.
When Physical Apps realized several months ago that it needed help sewing the harness that keeps the smartphone snug within the ball, Great Lakes pointed across the hall. Allen Manufacturing had 40 years in the sewing business.
“To a great extent, stitching is stitching is stitching. We do a lot of tote bags. A number of different versions of tote bags. We make a bag for a high-end croquet company,” said David Allen, president of Allen Manufacturing. “If you look at it, it’s different. If we look at it, ‘Eh, it’s the same thing. Just a different shape.'”
The expertise impressed Houvener.
“There’s really amazing capability up there,” he said. “We sort of asked these people how they’ve been hiding so well. It’s just world-class talent and they are not easy to find. But once you find one of them, then you can network and find others. And having it right in our backyard here turned out to be very fortuitous.”
Houvener liked the area so much that his company will soon have its own presence here. It is leasing 1,165 square feet on the third floor of the business center at KeyBank Plaza on Lisbon Street and will higher a general manager to oversee it.
TheO SmartBall has been patented. The company sold a limited run of a few thousand of the toys at Christmas and is selling the ball now on its website. Houvener hopes to launch it within the education and special education markets and sell it in retail stores.
Physical Apps also is planning a new smartphone tabletop disk toy that players can tilt, spin and slide.
Although the three Lewiston companies have not added employees for the SmartBall, all say they’re excited by the possibilities.
“It could be very big,” House said. “It’s a unique product.”