- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The former Wichitan who invented Rainbow Loom, one of the more popular toys on the planet, says his invention has helped make him worth about $40 million.

Now he is launching a sequel: a small loom that kids can use with just their fingers - no loom hook necessary.

Boxes of Finger Loom should reach the Rainbow Loom online store by Friday, said inventor Choon Ng.

He got the idea for Finger Loom, he said, by watching children experiment with his regular Rainbow Looms, putting down the loom hooks and using only their fingers to create rubber band bracelets. When he saw that repeated stretching of the rubber bands began to tire and scrape their fingers, he decided to create the compact new loom, designing it to minimize the strain on small hands. Rainbow Loom sells for about $15; Finger Loom retails for about $4 or $5, he said.

Customers will be able to order them worldwide, he told The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/1tq3gA9 ).

In the two years since sales of Rainbow Loom exploded all over the world, several things have changed for Ng (pronounced “Ung”), the Wichita State University graduate whose invention can be seen on the wrists of children worldwide.

One change: He’s worth - he thinks - about $40 million now. He’s sold 8 million toys and 40 million packs of rubber bands.

He used to worry about how he could afford to pay for college educations for his two daughters. No concerns on that score now.

But some things haven’t changed, he said in a phone interview this week.

“We still live in the same house (in Michigan),” he said. “And I still get up every morning and try hard to think how we can do better.”

What he means by that is how he can make children happier, starting with his own daughters. That was the point of his invention from the beginning, he said.

Ng invented Rainbow Loom about five years ago as a simple weaving loom toy for children. It creates bracelets, rings and other toys from rubber bands. The loom parts easily adjust, like Lego parts. Adjusting the loom allows the user to make a wide array of bracelets, necklaces and toys.

Sales skyrocketed two years ago, shocking him and his family, he said. He was a mechanical engineer by training and worked for Nissan as a crash test safety scientist; he had no real business experience. He believed in his toy but had no idea at first that it would sell millions of copies.

When sales took off, he hung on at Nissan for months, until his toy became a worldwide phenomenon. Over time, he learned how to set up manufacturing - mostly in China - and how to set up supply chains.

He also had to deal with disappointment. Cheap, fake versions of his toy began to appear worldwide. It wasn’t just that the knock-off makers were stealing from him, he said. It was that the fraudulent versions were brittle - and produced sharp, jagged edges when broken, edges that could hurt children.

The real version doesn’t hurt children, he said. And it has sold well.

“We’re now selling Rainbow Loom in 70 countries on all the continents,” he said.

YouTube has many videos showing viewers how to make hundreds of varieties of bracelets and other items. “The channel we created gets 8 million views a month,” he said. Other channels not created by his family, but which he links to on Rainbow Loom’s Web page, get many more.

“If you totaled all the views of all those videos, it would be 70, 80, maybe 90 million views a month,” he said.

He still has a hard time getting his head around all that. All he wanted to do, he said, was make his two daughters happy. He worked long hours at Nissan and felt guilty for not spending enough time with his girls.

He still tries hard to do that, and he’s trying now to think a lot about how to be a good father. If he and his brother Yeow really are successful as men and as fathers, it is in part because they both had to work hard for everything, Ng said.

“Nothing was ever handed to us,” he said.

He doesn’t want money, or success, or a lack of hardship to become a problem for his daughters, he said.

“I want them to know that if there is anything they want, they will have to work hard to get it,” he said.

Choon’s American life began in 1991 when he and Yeow came to Wichita from their native Malaysia. They lived in near poverty as they worked their way toward multiple master’s degrees at WSU. As students they studied, worked as janitors and got frostbite while carrying home groceries in the winter. Shy, introverted and hard workers, they kept to themselves and spoke mostly to each other in their ethnic-Chinese Hokkien dialect.

Yeow stayed in Wichita; Choon moved to Michigan. He was working for Nissan when he came home one night and found his daughters playing with rubber bands. Rainbow Loom began that night, when he tried to impress the girls by weaving rubber bands into bracelets. It worked. “This is the coolest thing you ever made,” Teresa told him.

Already a workaholic, Choon began staying awake until 2 and 3 a.m. perfecting prototypes for a toy loom. His brother, working at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research, took Choon’s designs to NIAR’s 3-D printers and made prototypes Choon used to perfect the toy.

Choon tried to sell Rainbow Loom to toy stores. He was rejected repeatedly for two years until a store in Georgia, Learning Express Toys, bought a few of the toys. Then a few more.

One day, Learning Express e-mailed Choon and his wife, Tyng Fen, an order for 10,000 Rainbow Looms.

“My wife and I just stared at the screen,” Choon has said. “We wondered if we were seeing it right.”

He remains fond of Wichita, he said. “I have quite an emotional attachment to Wichita State.”

He wants to come back sometime to visit family and see professors who helped him. He’s heard a bit about WSU’s plans to build a new innovation campus based in part on technology, business partnerships and entrepreneurship. “That’s a smart thing for them to do and would benefit guys like me trying to create something,” he said.

It was really hard to invent Rainbow Loom. Choon built his first prototypes with wood, pins and scraped fingers. But after Yeow began helping him with the 3-D printers at NIAR, “we could make prototypes within hours.” If that’s what WSU has in mind, to do on a much larger scale, he thinks that will be a great thing for the university and the people it serves.

He no longer has to ask for help from WSU for 3-D printer work, though.

“I now have three 3-D printers of my own,” he said.


Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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