Crazy Cool Toys, Tech and Gadgets – an Interview with Davin Sufer from WowWee

by Ben Yoskovitz on October 26, 2010

Davin SuferWowWee is a Montreal-based consumer electronics, toy and tech company that too few people realize is based in the city. The company was founded in 1988 and now has 135 employees.

Davin Sufer is WowWee’s CTO. He spends most of his time in Hong Kong where WowWee has their biggest offices. Davin is responsible for finding new technologies, coming up with innovative product ideas and running Product Development. When you look at some of the products produced by WowWee, and if you like toys at all, then it seems to me like he has one of the best jobs in the world.

Davin started in Systems Design Engineering. After University he co-founded a startup to develop wireless monitoring technology for vending machine inventory and cash levels through the web. After that he briefly worked at an electronics hardware company. He’s been at WowWee for 5 years. We did a quick interview with Davin about WowWee, his job and what the company is up to.

NextMontreal: What does WowWee do?

Davin: WowWee produces entertainment products and consumer electronics that appeal to a broad audience—children, young adults and older adults. There are five distinct product lines—WowWee Robotics™, WowWee Paper Jamz™, WowWee Alive™, WowWee FlyTech™ and WowWee Technologies™—that include innovations that walk, talk, jam, purr, fly, entertain, and enable communication.

NextMontreal: What are you most proud of regarding your work at WowWee?

Davin: The best part is seeing a product through from concept to the shelf. Whether it is a micro HoverPod, a Pico Projector or a Robot, being involved every step of the way as the product develops is very rewarding.

I am most proud of being part of, and helping to build, an innovative and collaborative team that creates innovative solutions and designs.

NextMontreal: How did the company start and who founded it?

Davin: WowWee was founded by brothers Richard and Peter Yanofsky as an independent research and development and manufacturing company, focused on cutting-edge, high-tech toys. In the early years, the company mostly produced licensed items, such as the popular Power Rangers glove. In the late 1990s, the focus switched to the development of breakthrough consumer robotic and electronic products under the WowWee brand name. It was the huge success of Robosapien in 2004 that cemented its reputation as a developer of innovative, award-winning personal robotics. Since then, the company has greatly expanded its robotics line and continues to develop revolutionary new technologies like Paper Jamz.

NextMontreal: Why did the founders get into this business? Did they see a huge market opportunity or just wanted to have fun making cool toys?

Davin: Peter and Richard wanted to turn their passion for technology into a successful company offering affordable, innovative and, most importantly, fun products to the average consumer.

NextMontreal: How successful was Robosapiens?

Davin: Robosapien put WowWee on the map, with global sales of more than 6 million units. It was the first commercially available biomorphic robot, and it revolutionized the way we interact with entertainment robotic companions. The technology and design of Robosapien was developed by Mark Tilden.

NextMontreal: How do you identify potential successes that you’re going to launch into the market?

Davin: Our development team often builds initial “proof-of-concept” prototypes to determine if a product concept can be transformed into reality. Once the product concept has passed the “proof-of-concept” phase (could be day or months, depending on how complex the item is), we then demo the item internally, and simply try it out! In this way we ensure that the product payoff envisioned by WowWee is meaningful and compelling. Additionally, members of the engineering and design team frequently meet with retailers to receive real-time feedback on potential products as they are being developed.

NextMontreal: How long does it typically take for a product to go from concept to shelves?

Davin: Can be anywhere from 8 months to 1 year. More complex items can run a year and a half.

NextMontreal: How do you measure success? How many units does something have to sell to be successful?

Davin: To be profitable on an item usually means millions of units of a lower cost item <50$, hundreds of thousands of a medium price point item <200$ and in the tens of thousands of units for a high price point item. >200$.

NextMontreal: Very few people realize Wowwee is a Montreal-based company. Why is that?

Davin: WowWee is truly an international company with offices in Montreal, Hong Kong, and several in the US. To have access to our manufacturing partners, our largest presence is in HK. This often overshadows the company’s smaller offices, including its Montreal headquarters.

NextMontreal: Of the 135 employees – what’s the general breakdown by department?

Davin: In HK we have approx 70 staff. About 30 of that is Product development related. In North America there are another 10 people working on Product development.

NextMontreal: Is the company looking at doing things online or integrated with mobile or tablet devices?

Davin: We always consider the ways our products relate to all devices, including mobile devices. In the near future there will be even more activity in these areas for both our toy product lines and our Consumer Electronic items.

NextMontreal: What emerging or new technologies do you foresee or would you like to see in future WowWee products? What’s on the horizon?

Davin: We have some very interesting new products in the pipeline. Stay tuned.

NextMontreal: Is there a startup market at all in the toy business? Do you guys keep track of small startup companies doing interesting things? Anything interesting you can share?

Davin: Absolutely. It can be extremely challenging and costly to develop and launch a new product or a new technology in the toy business. However, we often encounter and sometimes engage small startups that are trying to launch a technology or a toy. In most cases they are looking to partner with us so that they can focus on the core value of their product and technology while we focus on the integration of their technology into a viable and compelling product.

NextMontreal: How does someone (a potential employee / student / etc. ) get into the business of building robotic toys?

Davin: In my opinion if a student is interested in robotics, the best thing they can do is join a robotics club and join or build a team for a robotics competition. Robotics was interesting to me because it combines electronics, mechanics and software. I learned a lot about building robots and working on a team with people of different expertise and finding ways to integrate their efforts into a single working device. Product development is very much like this as well. The quickest way to get involved is to jump in and build something.

NextMontreal: What’s coming up in the next 6-12 months for Wowwee?

Davin: We expect to continue to forge new categories in entertainment and offer consumers the imaginative, inventive products they’ve come to expect from us.

Photo courtesy of Jeremy Toeman.