Fidget spinners quite possibly originated with an idea by Scott McCoskery of Kitsap County. Now Torqbar is fighting the cheap knockoffs and hoping to carve a niche market for its high-end version.
SUQUAMISH, Kitsap County — In a large, converted 2,000-square-foot garage at the home of Scott McCoskery is where you’ll find what’s possibly the origins of many fidget spinners.
You know the gadgets, the “must-have” toys of the year, the small ball-bearing devices that do nothing but spin between your fingers. Tens of millions of various kinds of fidget spinners have been sold; so many, that teachers tell of facing a classroom full of kids with spinners in their little hands.
McCoskery and his partner in the firm, Paul de Herrera, believe they will prosper, but they’ll have to survive the cheap knockoffs and the short life span of fads.
Right now, the market is flooded with cratefuls of imitations, most from China. Some version of fidget spinners currently occupies all of Amazon’s Top 20 best-selling toys and games; McCoskery’s products are not among them as they can’t compete on price.
Here in the garage, a crew puts together the Torqbar, with its name registered and a patent applied for.
Sales have been “in the many thousands,” says McCoskery, 44, a former disc jockey and IT worker who says he came up with the concept back in 2014.
The Torqbar is an exquisite piece of work that Forbes magazine called “the iPhone of desk toys.” Materials used include titanium, tellurium copper and zirconium, not what you’d find in the knockoffs sometimes made out of plastic that sell for as little as $2.20 each.
The high-end quality costs.
Initially, McCoskery found buyers among people who look for the best and newest gadgets. He sold his first Torqbar in September 2015 online for about $300, and by the next year it was a full-fledged website.
These days, the Torqbar is sold in versions that begin at $139 and can reach $800 for custom-made ones in which the buyer chooses the material and finish on the metal.
“These are people with disposable income. They like very nice things and they want the best of everything, and the exclusivity of something nobody else has,” McCoskery says.
Patrick Lynn, a Los Angeles television producer who used to be with American Idol Productions, is one such buyer. He owns two brass versions that cost $139 and $350.
The Torqbar feels solid in your hands. The metal edges are smoothed out. The ball- bearing assembly makes no noise.
“I love this thing. It’s an amazing piece of engineering,” he says. “My Torqbars spin outward of six minutes each. It’s almost perfectly balanced.”
McCoskery tells how it all began.
He was working for mobile security firm and attended a lot of meetings. “I’d click a pen, fidget with something in my pocket,” he says.
From that, he says, the idea percolated of fidgeting with a gadget “that was quiet and cool and interesting.”
He taught himself the basics of computer-controlled machining and built a prototype. He began posting photos of the Torqbar on Facebook groups for gadgeteers and on Instagram.
“Within one day I had over 100 on a waiting list,” says McCoskery. “All I was selling were the custom ones. I’d have a conversation with the person ordering — what kind of metal, weight, what colors, titanium screws, every element. It’s similar to ordering a custom knife.”
It was time to get serious about the business. McCoskery brought in de Herrera, a friend, “somebody who respected the business perspective.” They are waiting on the long process of having a patent approved.
Of course, getting a patent doesn’t matter much if you don’t have access to money for lawyers.
Steve Faktor is founder of the IdeaFaktory in New York, an “innovation incubator.”
He says, “I’ve talked a lot of entrepreneurs out of a patent since in a lot of cases it’s only as good as your ability to defend it.”
Patent lawsuits, he says, “could run easily into millions of dollars” and be “decades long.”
If you go into the fad business you soon learn it is cutthroat.
On the internet, says de Herrera, a Chinese company duplicated the Torqbar’s website, logo, product images and wording, but sold the items at a heavy discount.
The site was operational until Monday morning. It’s now gone.
McCoskery and de Herrera say that once they have their patent, they plan to issue cease-and-desist orders to the knockoffs, or maybe reach licensing agreements with the big offenders.
Then there is the matter of figuring out who first came up with an idea.
There’s plenty of room for argument when it comes to spinners. After all, in 1892 a Brooklyn resident applied for a spinning-toy patent.
It gnaws at McCoskery and de Herrera that Catherine Hettinger, a 62-year-old woman in Winter Park, Florida, has been credited in a number of reputable publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times for inventing the fidget spinner.
It’s clear even to a casual observer looking at her patent drawings and description that Hettinger’s spinning toy looks nothing like the current fidget spinners.
Her patent shows a plastic disc that resembles a Frisbee, except there’s a dent in the middle into which you place your index finger. Then you start spinning it with the other hand.
The U.S. Patent Office shows she applied in 1992 for a “Spinning Toy,” and that it lapsed in 2005 for failure to pay the maintenance fee.
In a phone interview, she says about letting the patent lapse, “I don’t have any regrets.” She says, “In this country, they tax alcohol, cigarettes and new ideas.”
In the fad-toy business, many customers are willing to forgo the high-end version if they can get something like it for a lot less.
Allen Ashkenazie is executive vice president of Almar Sales in New York City, a supplier of toys to such retailers as Wal-Mart and Toys ‘R’ Us.
He says that by the end of May his company will have shipped out 45 million fidget spinners that retail from $5 to $25 each.
“The market demand of speed and velocity surpasses any product that we’ve seen in our 50-year history,” he says.
Ashkenazie predicts fidget-spinner sales will start spinning down by the beginning of the 2018 school year. How long a fad lasts, he says, is measured “in weeks … a year is a long time.”
Ashkenazie theorizes about fidget spinners, “A consumer craze for children, and with parental support — nowadays anything physical that’ll keep them away from their obsession with tech.”
Plus, he says, there are “the potential health benefits.”
On the internet, fidget spinners have been touted as helping individuals with autism or ADHD curb anxiety and become more focused.
Experts are wary.
Mark Stein, director of the ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s, says: “I’m not sure they’re directly harmful, but they take time and resources from addressing what the problems really are. It’s not really going to help them improve in school performance or their attention.”
There have been reports of fidget spinners being banned in schools because they’ve become so distracting.Some teachers in this area have banned them in their classrooms.
“We’re on high-end”
Ashkenazie says he understands the frustration of those who believe they’ve come up with an original toy. The firm has a legal team that looks over a toy “before we touch the product.” With fidget spinners, he says, “it’s become a generic product.”
Back in Suquamish, McCoskery and de Herrera say they realize that fads have a limited life span.
“But that’s the low end of the market, we’re on the high-end,” says de Herrera.
In a newsletter it puts out, the Patent Office made this unbureacuratic observation:
“ … always remember to dream.”