Where the Action (Figure) Is

Of the 42 university teams from around the world that competed in the 2012 Rice Business Plan Competition last April, only one pitched a retail toy business to potential investors — Action Figure Laboratories (AFL) of Rice University.

“Action Figure Laboratories is an exciting retail store concept that will provide young boys with the experience of creating custom-built toys, much like what girls experience at Build-A-Bear for creating stuffed toys,” went the elevator pitch, which was enthusiastically delivered by Phillip Leech, a 2012 graduate of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business’ MBA for Professionals.

Leech, a software engineer, and fellow Jones School student Michael Pariser ’12 developed the business plan as part of Jones School lecturer Dennis Murphree’s class in creative entrepreneurship. But it was Leech who owned the inspiration. His light-bulb moment occurred at the mall.

“I had taken my daughter, who is 7, to Build-A-Bear for her last three birthdays. My son, who is 10, was mostly sitting on the floor playing Nintendo DS. I thought that there should be an equivalent experience for boys,” Leech said.

Inspiration also came from 3-D printing technology, something Leech had been experimenting with ever since he purchased a Thing-O-Matic, a 3-D printer for hobbyists. A former hardware and software engineer, Leech bought the device with the intention of prototyping ideas for fun and because “it was really cool.”

Leech bounced around his idea for a store that featured 3-D toymaking to family and friends, but it wasn’t until he enrolled in the entrepreneurship class that the business concept took serious shape. He also took the idea to a monthly meeting of the Jones Graduate School Entrepreneurs Organization.

“When 30 people in the same room all say that you have a great idea, perhaps there is something to it,” Leech said. AFL went on to win a slot in the Rice Business Plan Competion and added a third member, current MBA student Jessica Fenlon, who brought a wealth of retail experience to the team.

AFL took home $7,300 from the Rice Business Plan Competition and, though not a finalist, was mentioned in Fortune Magazine’s on-the-scene report.

“The primary feedback from judges, which we had expected, was the risk associated with retail concepts and consumer products in general,” Leech explained.

But that was not the end of the story for Leech. His transformation from employee and student to entrepreneur is complete. He has hired freelance 3-D artists to help with prototyping, an online store is in the works, and he has invested in a professional 3-D printer. At the end of May, Leech became Action Figure Laboratories’ first employee. And that elevator speech is right in his back pocket.

Rice Magazine No. 13 2012