Born in a basement, LiteZilla is play through touch

 

Adam Butlein of Cedarburg has invented something wholesome, a toy that’s bigger than your kids, brighter than a rainbow.

A LiteZilla – a mammoth board with holes for colorful “LitePins” which kids (or playful adults) can move around to create giant designs in doctors waiting rooms or anywhere – is exceedingly tactile.

People tell Butlein to combine his invention with tech. He refuses. He’s proud that his product has seen success with people who are autistic; that he’s donated LiteZillas, including one to a pediatric oncology waiting room; that it’s not a video game.

LiteZilla at Green Bay Family Dental. According to promotional materials, LiteZilla is “an interactive glowing canvas that can be used to create any kind of glowing art imaginable.” Photo courtesy of LiteZilla.

Through LiteZilla, he’s making a friendly request, a gentle nudge: “Put your phone down for five minutes and create and make something fun.”

Butlein, who was once part of setting up a manufacturing operation in a troubled section of Africa, said he’s driven in part by Jewish values.

“Every job that I’ve ever been a part of, I’ve looked for ways to have some type of mission-based impact behind it,” said Butlein, who grew up at Congregation Sinai in Fox Point. “I was brought up with a strong level of altruism from my parents.”

Started as a basement project

If LiteZilla looks like LiteBrite, the Hasbro toy that saw its heyday in a prior century, that’s because LiteZilla is inspired by it, Butlein said. Also, he recalled that he saw something like a big LiteBrite in a children’s museum “and it was really cheesy and some of the pegs were made of wood and I thought, I can do this a lot better.”

He built his first one in his unfinished Cedarburg basement for his first daughter, back in 2013.  She was 18-months-old. “This was my first kid and I wanted to do something spectacular,” he said.

“I hand-drilled the first front grid, which was 690 holes,” he recalled. But when his pins arrived, it wasn’t, as they say, a good fit. “They fit but it was too hard to put them in,” he said.

So he started over and drilled the 690 holes again.

Later, when his wife Katrina posted the finished product to Facebook it went viral, with about 800 shares and many requests for prices for a LiteZilla.

One of the requests for pricing came from Dr. C.J. Wagner, for his Wagner Pediatric Dentistry, 330 E. Silver Spring Drive in Whitefish Bay.

“I said, do you really want one? They’re really expensive,” Butlein recalled. The answer was yes and there’s now a LiteZilla in Wagner’s dental office.

“I moved back to Milwaukee to start my first pediatric dental practice on my own and really was looking for a way to help make the décor and ambiance of my practice stand out, other than the quality of care and the really good experience that we give the kids in our dental treatment,” Wagner said.

“I ended up being the first (customer),” Wagner added. “It’s really a large LiteBrite. It’s not a bunch of bells and whistles. It’s a piece of art that’s forever changing. The children in my office love to play with it and make designs with it. And then the parents do too, probably just as much if not more.”

Wagner vividly remembers one beautiful moment in his office, when a 17-year-old special needs patient was adjusting LitePins on top, interacting with a little girl adjusting them on the bottom.

“I see a lot of special needs kids,” Wagner said. “I feel that it really brings out their imagination as well. It’s something tactile.”

‘I’m onto something’

Butlein decided that if this was actually going to be a business, it would have to be “perfect,” so he invested in research and development. There were hurdles. He wanted a LiteZilla to light up without getting hot. He wanted it to be reliable. He got it cleared as not a choking hazard, by a pediatrician, he said.

Wagner got his LiteZilla in October of 2016. In November of that year, Butlein sold two to a pediatric dentist in Georgia for a total of $25,000. “I realized I’m onto something here,” he said.

Having quit his full-time job last year, Butlein said he has sold about 65 LiteZillas to date throughout North America. They average about $12,000 each. Pediatric dentists have been the greatest portion of the customer base so far. It’s also been purchased for children’s museums, medical facilities and hospitals. Marketing companies rent LiteZillas for clients, including one recently for a bourbon booth at a Florida outdoor music festival.

The LitePins and lights are made in China and Canada respectively, but everything else is locally sourced, Butlein said. The wood is from Wisconsin. Even the shipping crates are made in Bay View, he said.

Butlein has one full time employee, and he said his wife’s advice is indispensable, as he lives the life of an entrepreneur. He’s done it all: Shipping, sanding wood, installing, learning QuickBooks, plus billing, sales and operations. He personally takes a blowtorch to every LitePin from China, to melt the edges and render them safe for play.

But he insists, “I’m not very handy at all.”