The mark of a great idea is sometimes that it’s so perfectly simple, everyone wonders why they didn’t think of it first.
The light bulb went on for communications studies major John C. Fyke ’17 while lying in bed with his 6-year-old son, gazing at the stars projected onto the ceiling by a nightlight.
Fyke’s oldest son, now 9, had been struggling with sight words, those simple, common words that beginning readers learn by heart. In a flash, his dad was out of bed and downstairs in his shop.
Fyke quickly fashioned makeshift plates that became the basis of Helio, a toy light that projects educational images as varied as math facts, U.S. presidents and nursery rhymes onto the ceiling via interchangeable discs.
“It became a ritual for him and I to go to bed with sight words on the ceiling, and he started memorizing them right off the bat,” Fyke said. “A month after that, we were at back-to-school night and the teacher asked what I had done.
“So my wife said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something with this and take it to the next level,’ and we went to a patent attorney,” Fyke said. “What everybody says is, ‘It’s so simple and so effective. Why didn’t I think of this?’”
Already an entrepreneur after leaving Chapman University his senior year in 2000 to co-found a wireless provider startup that eventually sold for millions, Fyke – who returned to Chapman last spring to pursue his degree at 41 — knew he had a nascent business idea on his hands. With a second business already under his belt after he and Marlis, his wife, opened a Corona del Mar bridal salon, he put together a core group of investors and launched Helio this year.
After just 2 1/2 weeks on Amazon.com and in a few stores, Helio had sold 521 units, mostly through family and friends sharing on social media. Fyke and his colleagues figured they had a hit.
“Our first order was 5,000 units, and we’ve just decided as a board to move forward with an additional 25,000 units arriving that week before Cyber Monday,” he said. “We’re stockpiling for the holiday rush.”
Though simple in its concept, Helio has room for growth, with the device built for future ability to sync to smartphones.
The company is working with accredited educational advisors to build content for more discs. In addition to Amazon, Helio will soon be available in more area outlets, including toy stores, tutoring centers and children’s haircut shops.
Fyke is juggling another project as he steers Helio. He is completing a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, partly for his sons Porter, 9 and Colt, 6.
“It’s always been on my bucket list of things to do,” he said. “I want to be a role model to my children, I’m not going to lie to you. I got so close and I want to finish.”