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Lehigh University Student-Turned-Entrepreneur Creates Innovative ZYX Sticks

By Colin McEvoy on June 17, 2016


Shannon Varcoe didn’t realize she was an entrepreneur until she came to Lehigh University.

“Now I’m sort of obsessed with it,” Varcoe laughed. “I read those articles like ‘10 signs you’re an entrepreneur,’ and I feel like they’re describing me. I just really love the idea of building something from nothing.”

The 23-year-old student of the Bethlehem university’s Master’s of Technical Entrepreneurship program just successfully launched her first Kickstarter campaign for ZYX Sticks, wooden building sticks promoting open-ended, abstract play.

Varcoe, a North Whitehall Township native and Parkland High School graduate, came up with ZYX Sticks as part of a three-dimensional design class project while majoring in mechanical engineering and product design at Lehigh.

ZYX Sticks are wooden sticks with notches that fit together to build structures. They can be moved around and stacked in a variety of different combinations and come with no instructions, instead encouraging creativity and collaboration, as well as spatial development.

“Kids intuitively know how to play with them when they get them out of the box,” Varcoe said. “It’s just about exploring and trying things and solving problems. They’re very abstract structures, and you’re not designing it for them. They get to pick what they want to make.”

The Kickstarter campaign for ZYX Sticks reached its $10,000 goal within the first two weeks.

The Kickstarter campaign for ZYX Sticks reached its $10,000 goal within the first two weeks.

The product was well-received among children and adults alike, and soon Varcoe was expanding on the idea through Lehigh’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Innovation. Her Kickstarter campaign, which is still open, launched on May 25, and within two weeks she had already reached her $10,000 goal.

Now Varcoe is looking toward the future, planning how to reach a larger audience and considering steps to begin manufacturing. And she hopes to remain in the Lehigh Valley, where she has discovered a rich network of resources to help foster entrepreneurship and innovation.

“I’ve had amazing mentors and people that have really pushed me to pursue this,” she said. “Having this great network of people and alumni at Lehigh University and the Baker Institute has been incredibly important to me.”

Varcoe won first place in the social venture category of the Baker Institute’s Eureka! Competition in 2014, according to Chris Kauzmann, Lehigh University’s innovation programs manager and a member of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation’s (LVEDC) Entrepreneurship Council of the Lehigh Valley.

“I love her product,” Kauzmann said. “It’s engaging. It’s fun. It gives you the freedom to create stuff and allows you to want to do that. I like how simple it is.”

Varcoe went to Lehigh University to become a mechanical engineer, but the creativity that stemmed from her assignments naturally led her to entrepreneurship. She enjoys working with children and has always been interested in the toy industry, and quickly realized that interest could be combined with her passion for engineering.

Once she conceived ZYX Sticks, Varcoe began taking courses in child development and psychology to help inform the development of the toy. That not only reinforced her interest in open-ended play, but also her belief that toys should be gender-inclusive.

“While it’s great that we are starting to see engineering toys for girls, these products are still targeted by gender, which tells kids that girls can do engineering, but they have to do it differently than boys,” she said. “When a toy is no longer specifically for a girl or a boy, it opens up the space for all kids to play and create together.”

Varcoe said today’s toys are divided by gender at historically unprecedented levels, which has an impact on children as they grow older. She noted that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 15 percent of architects and engineers are women.

This is not the first time a student has created an interesting product as the result of a Lehigh University class assignment, and then pursued it as a business through the school’s Technical Entrepreneurship program. Lisa Glover and her origami dinosaur sets called KitRex, and Briana Gardell and her throwable paintballs called Goblies, followed similar paths.

“I know them and we’re all friends, even though we all came up with our ideas separately,” Varcoe said. “It’s interesting. It’s sort of like we’re members of a club.”

Varcoe will participate in the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C. this weekend, where she will have an exhibit of ZYX Sticks.

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