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
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
“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