Last year, Sawyer Sparks, 23, turned down a $500,000 offer from Hasbro, maker of Play-Doh, to license his patented gluten-free modeling clay, called Soy-Yer Dough (that's blueberry blue, above). Instead, Sparks raised $300,000 on the investing TV show Shark Tank to build a factory in his hometown, Bloomfield, Indiana. It will employ up to 30 workers when it opens this summer. Until then, Sparks, a senior at Purdue University, will keep baking the stuff in his mom's kitchen. So far, he has sold 60,000 containers. Sparks took a break from production to speak with Inc.'s Peter Vanden Bos about his passion for helping children with allergies and his commitment to giving back to his community.
How did you come up with the idea for the gluten-free modeling clay?
I'm majoring in agricultural economics. Two years ago, one of my professors told me that she and one of her daughters both had celiac disease, which is a gluten allergy. I had no idea what that even meant. I was just flabbergasted at how much I consume every day that contains wheat. I lived one day gluten free, and it was the hardest day of my life.
I set out to help her by making barley-free beer, but it just turned out awful. She also said her daughter couldn't play with Play-Doh. I didn't even know that Play-Doh had wheat in it. My mom and my fiancée were able to help me come up with the perfect formula, but it took a hundred different variations.
If you had sold to Hasbro, you could have still helped kids with allergies and earned $500,000. Why didn't you do that?
I'm really not somebody who's out there to make a pretty penny. It's nice, but there's more to it than that. We've received a lot of offers. When those companies call, I ask: Will it be made in the U.S.A.? It's usually a quick conversation. I understand it's cheaper to go overseas, but I would rather create jobs here. This is where my kids are going to grow up. I'm not going to raise them overseas.
Why was it so important to you to build a factory right in your hometown?
When you drive through your hometown and you see an ice cream shop you went to as a kid that's closed, you try to imagine what it'd be like to be a kid and not be able to go to that place. It's a sad situation when people you grew up with are looking for jobs. This town is hanging by a thread. Somebody needs to sew it back up. Whether we hire three or 20 or 100 full-time employees, these are people who didn't have jobs before.
Target and Kroger have contacted us to sell Soy-Yer Dough in their stores. Once we get established with these major retailers, it would be really nice to start a toy company in our town that could compete with the big guys and offer a lot of products for kids with allergies.