Thames & Kosmos has been in business since 2001. Known for making science based products, the company was producing STEM before there was STEM. I knew them to have an interesting back story so conducted this interview with CEO Andrew Quartin and President Ted McGuire.
RICHARD: Thames & Kosmos is an interesting name. Can tell me about the origin of the name? And while you're at it, tell us about the company's history.
TED MCGUIRE: The name “Thames” comes from the Thames Science Center, which began in the mid-twentieth century as a small nature center in New London, CT. The center expanded into a nationally recognized, cutting-edge science and technology center in the 1980’s, and then opened up a second location in Newport, RI, in the early 1990’s. The museum was named after the Thames River in New London. There is also a Thames Street in Newport, RI. So, the name was fitting in both locations.
My mom was the director of the Thames Science Center from the early 1980’s until her death in 2003. When I was in high school, in 1995, I helped my mom open up a science and learning retail toy store in the museum's Newport location as a summer project. I designed the layout of the store, bought the fixtures, ordered the inventory (with the amazing guidance of Jack and Priscilla Finn from A2Z Science & Learning in Northhampton, MA), and hired my high school friends to work in the store. I also wrote my Stanford admissions essay on starting the store!
The store was rather successful. Newport has many international tourists, so the store had customers from around the world. On a few occasions, customers from Europe came into the store and asked about Kosmos kits. We researched it a little at the time and discovered Kosmos was an almost 200-year-old publisher in Germany with very highly regarded products. We had all the science kits that were available in the US in the 90’s, but Kosmos kits were not available in the US. (I have since learned that other toy companies had tried, and failed, at introducing Kosmos science kits to the US market at least 2 times before our successful attempt.) We tested out really innovative programs like “Kits with Class” where the customer purchased a science kit and along with the kit received an instructor-led class to use or build the kit together. We sold a lot of science kits at premium prices that way!
In the late 90’s, my mom happened to see a Kosmos booth in the German pavilion at NY Toy Fair. I was finishing up my BS in Mechanical Engineering/Product Design at Stanford at this time. Over the next couple of years, my mom negotiated a deal to distribute Kosmos science kits in English in North America. (So, by now, it should be clear where the name “Kosmos” comes from.)
In 2001, my mom and I, with one other investor, founded this new for-profit business, Thames & Kosmos (TK), alongside the non-profit museum, renamed Thames Museum, in 2001. Thames & Kosmos bought the retail store and the Thames Science Center brand from the non-profit museum, and began to translate, adapt, market, and distribute Kosmos science kits in the US market.
Our first kit was a $150 Hydrogen Fuel Cell kit, which sold tremendously well because of the government’s focus on fuel cell technology in the 2000’s. The profit generated from the Fuel Cell allowed us to bring in a second kit, Power House, in 2002, and then 10 more kits by 2003. Over the next 10 years, we expanded the line up to 80 or so science kits.
To further grow the company, Kosmos invested in TK in 2013. We had the extreme good fortune to find and bring Andy Quartin into the company at that time, to take over much of the sales, business development, strategy, and operations. I was able to devote more attention to my passion, product development. With the investment, we were quickly able to increase the pace of product development and also increase the level of innovation. We also got access to Kosmos catalog of other products: board games, craft kits, magic kits, and more.
I know my mom would be beyond thrilled if she could see the success of Thames & Kosmos today.
RICHARD: You were Steam and Stem before there was Steam and Stem. So, how do you feel about the whole concept of Stem and Steam and how do you see your position in it?
TED: Do you think it’s a coincidence that the name THAMES has the letter STEAM in it? Add the H for Hands-On, and you have the core of what we are all about. My mom, the visionary behind TK, was brilliant, ambitious, and always 10 steps ahead of herself. She saw the STEM trend coming in the 80’s. As a science museum director, she had access to all the cutting-edge thinking and conversions on STEM and education. For example, defense conversion was a huge topic in the 90’s: How could the nation move engineers away from building bombs and destructive technology and toward building computers and constructive technology? How could we reduce government spending on the military and increase spending on other technologies that would be more beneficial to humanity and economically sound?
My mom embraced new technologies at every chance: The Thames Science Center was the first museum to have a presence on a BBS (bulletin board service), essentially a pre-web website. The Thames Science Center pioneered a program called Project RobotACTS where they taught kids physics through experimenting with sensors on robots. They were one of the first museums to build robots out of LEGOs and to install computer labs with brand new Apple computers, donated by then educationally focused Apple computer.
My mom’s passion for STEM grew out of an experience she had in her previous career as a local reporter for The Day newspaper in New London, CT. She was covering the expansion of a nuclear reactor facility, Millstone, in neighboring Waterford, CT. She realized that many of the people who read her articles did not understand enough of the science behind the nuclear reactor to understand the pros and cons, the environmental and safety concerns. She realized that as technology advanced and got more and more complicated with each generation, that society had to also increase its efforts to educate the population about those technologies. And we were already behind and had to play catch up. After all, a well-informed population is necessary for a functioning democracy. She started shifting her career from reporting on science, to advocating for STEM education — especially informal (out side the classroom) STEM education.
The fact that STEM and STEAM have become buzzwords in the toy industry is welcome, and at the same time both fascinating and entirely predictable. Fascinating because for many years, we felt like we were very much on the outer fringes of a toy industry that scoffed at educational toys. And predicable because we see firsthand the customer demand for this type of product. As kids move more and more toward apps, ipods, tablets, and video games, parents and teachers realize they need more specialized tools to engage kids in hands-on, non-screen-based activities as well as in activities that teach kids how those apps and ipods actually work. Parents see that engineers and programmers have great job prospects in the future, and they want their kids to have every advantage they can get so they can grow up to be smart, well-adjusted adults who have good job prospects and who are happy.
However, we have to be careful: STEM and STEAM toys must really deliver on any education expectations of the customers and promises from the manufacturers. We can’t just slap a STEM label on a toy robot that doesn’t actually teach anything, or we risk losing the meaning of STEM and also the customers’ trust.
I see Thames & Kosmos's position in the toy industry as the upholder of the virtue, promise, and veracity of STEM toys. We will always produce STEM toys that truly deliver on their educational promise as STEM toys, not watered down imposters.
RICHARD: In the toy industry, new products are the lifeblood of any company. How do you at Thames & Kosmos go about designing a new product? Do you create your own products internally or do you take inventor submissions?
TED: Every product has a different origin story. Some products are invented by outside inventors and pitched to us, and we license the product and develop it with them. Some products are conceptualized in-house and fully developed in-house. Some products are innovations on older products by the factories that make our products. Some products are simply new versions of time-tested classic items from our line (like chemistry sets, which have been in the line for almost 100 years!). Some products stem from specific requests from our retailers. We have great partners at all levels our supply chain and we love working with them to conceptualize, design, and manufacture great products.
First and foremost, we design each product with both the user (often a child for science kits, or an adult for board games) and the customer (who may be the same or different from the user) at the front of our minds. You have to consider the user of course, because that is what makes a product useful, with real use-value. And you have to consider the customer because you have to sell the product (often first to retail buyers and then to consumers) and the product must have perceived value at first sight. You also have to “sell” the product to the media.
We have some secret internal principles we follow when designing products. One not-so-secret tenet: It has to be FUN! But what’s the definition of FUN? Ah, that’s the secret!
RICHARD: A few years ago you decided to expand into games and magic kits. What prompted you to enter these categories and how has it worked out?
TED: Kosmos invested in and became the majority owner of TK in 2013. Along with this transaction, TK got access to most of Kosmos's board game and magic kit catalog. We have closely aligned our product portfolio and strategy with Kosmos (of course, with variations for difference in the markets). Kosmos has extraordinarily successful board game and magic lines, so it naturally makes sense to offer those in the North American market as well.
Beyond that, board games and magic kits are another way for us to teach kids important skills — in fact, entirely different sets of skills than what we can teach through science kits. So, with board games we can teach kids about strategic thinking, math, logic, and social skills, and with magic kits, we can teach kids presentation skills and eye-hand coordination skills, for example. Every product Thames & Kosmos puts out into the market has an educational aim behind it. At our core, we teach people how to learn and to be curious.
ANDREW QUARTIN: This is a tough question and it sort of depends on your perspective – Child or Parent, Retailer or Manufacturer, Teacher or Student. I guess it’s no coincidence that you chose toys, play and education, considering that is where we live. I imagine it won’t come as a surprise when I say we will see them all converging. Parents will demand smarter toys, and I don’t necessarily mean connected or digitally enabled toys. More like wholesome toys that are fun and good for your development. The pendulum has swung a bit too far and will ultimately come back to center. In education, schools will continue to embrace both digital learning tools and hands-on project-based learning to make learning fun and engaging. Globally, It’s likely that we will see the world continue to get smaller as a result of compressed and more efficient supply-chains.
RICHARD: We are in a time of great upheaval in toys, play and education. What do you think the three will look like in five years?
TED: Richard, it seems like we are in a time of great upheaval in every industry. Everywhere you look there is some disruptive force interfering with the status quo. In retail, you have e-commerce, in manufacturing, you have robots, in services, you have ride hailing apps— but disruption is the status quo. The internet didn’t invent disruption. “Upheaval” in our or any industry creates opportunity and it’s our responsibility to recognize the direction of the wind and point the boat in that direction. You don’t need to recognize a change early, just don’t be too late. We are intent on remaining nimble and easily adaptable to change. '
RICHARD: I am always interested in the influence of childhood toys on our adult lives. Was there a toy or game that you feel influenced your development as an adult?
TED: Yes, I had a ton of LEGO (every Space LEGO from 1986 to 1990!), Capsela, Tinker Toys, Bristle Blocks, Playmobil (actually belonged to my cousin, which taught me a lot about property, bartering, and sharing at an early age), GI Joe, ThunderCats, and so on. I was lucky enough to have a seemingly endless supply of toys. And because I ran a science toy store as a teen, I never really had to stop playing with toys.
But I’m going to answer this question with a toy that influenced me greatly that I never owned: Cabbage Patch Dolls. I desperately wanted a Cabbage Patch doll when I was probably a little too old for one. My parents were pretty anti-Cabbage Patch dolls. They thought they were spooky. They never flat out said that I couldn't have one, but they taught me to consider whether I really wanted the doll, consider my impulses as a consumer, and think before acting. At one point, my dad told me he would get me one, but my mom said he was “pulling my leg,” so I learned the meaning of “pulling one’s leg” and the deepness of my father’s sarcasm all at the same time. Waiting for that Cabbage Patch doll helped me develop a sense of patience and deliberateness in assessing the value in physical objects. I never did get the doll, because I stopped caring about them soon after the feverish trend ended. (By the way, I have nothing against Cabbage Patch dolls. They’re great.)
ANDREW: Ooh, that’s an easy question. Stretch Armstrong! – I loved that toy. I’d pull it and throw it and hit things with it. I guess I was around 4 or 5 when it came out but I remember this very vividly. I was kind of a curious kid, so one day I decided I wanted…no, I NEEDED to know what was inside stretch’s body. So I found a sharp object, a screw-driver, and poked a hole right through his chest. Goo went everywhere, I made a big mess and stretch was thrown away. I was sad and obviously learned a good lesson about consequences. I also learned the value in making toys that can be put back together.