Taking child's play to another level

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 2, 2007 - 4:33 PM

Andrew Comfort took inspiration from a toy from his childhood, founding Q-BA-MAZE to build and market his new creation.

Andrew Comfort loves making things.

He's built cabins in the north woods, as well as custom furniture. As an architect, he has used 3-D drafting software to design cutting-edge building projects. His newest creation -- a modular construction toy called Q-BA-MAZE -- is in a growing number of specialty stores and museum shops across the country.

His inspiration came from a toy that marbles bounced and rolled through that he played with as a boy, a gizmo his grandfather in St. Paul had built, possibly in the 1930s. Comfort's modern version is made up of interconnecting cubes that players use to build maze-like structures, forming pathways through which a marble -- now a stainless steel ball -- travels in unpredictable ways.

While he was in his element designing the product, Comfort, 41, found himself in unfamiliar territory as he built, from scratch, a company to manufacture and sell the toy. Comfort, who began working full time on developing the product in December 2004, appears to be succeeding on both fronts.

Both diversion and active toy

After several rounds of rapid prototyping to perfect the design, Q-BA-MAZE launched in June. The product appears to be an early hit with retailers, appealing to grownups as a desktop diversion and to Lego-loving youngsters as an active construction toy.

Q-BA-MAZE comes in 20- and 50-piece packs, which retail for $20 and $50, respectively. A patent is pending.

On the business side, Comfort has raised $650,000 from angel investors in two rounds of financing. He works from an office in the Ford Centre building, which looms over the Warehouse District. A video of Q-BA-MAZE in action, posted on the website q-ba-maze.com, has helped win over more than 130 independent sales representatives, who have gotten the toy into stores in 30 states.

Revenue this year could reach $1 million, Comfort said. With strong interest from Europe and Japan -- a Japanese distributor told him that the Pachinko-like toy was "too perfect" -- Comfort now is weighing whether to expand the business organically or seek additional investors to take it overseas.

Last month, the toy generated interest at the New York Gift Fair, an annual trade show. Comfort landed several new accounts, including the Walker Art Center and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Q-BA-MAZE has been popular with customers at Robot Love, said Kristoffer Knutson, owner of the Lyndale Avenue design store. "People are immediately sort of drawn to it, and they just start dropping marbles in and racing them," Knutson said of the Q-BA-MAZE display in his store.

Comfort's entry into the business world came after a number of unexpected twists and turns, much like those that players encounter with his game.

A long journey to the U

He earned a master's degree in architecture from the University of Minnesota in 1994, but only after avoiding the subject for years. Though drawn to architecture in high school, he heeded advice from an architect friend of his father, who recommended against going into what he called a difficult profession. Instead, Comfort enrolled at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts school in Connecticut. What really interested him there was volunteering to design and build sets for student theater productions.

"That was when I figured out for myself that I love making things," Comfort said of his time at Wesleyan. "Physical things. Theoretical, written work just wasn't what excited me."

After two years at Wesleyan and a brief return to Minnesota, Comfort went to Norway for a year to study woodworking. He built furniture for a year after he got back.

Finally, he enrolled at the U, seeing architecture as a way to acquire the skills he needed to make the things he wanted to make. He took occasional breaks to work on cabins up north, then, after graduation, he spent a year in Hong Kong researching urban housing.

Seeing the undulating shapes of the new Hong Kong airport's roof -- designed with 3-D drafting software -- inspired him to learn to use such software in his work.

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