Ithaca Toy Company, also known as Mars Flying Saucer Corporation, is a mission driven product development startup founded by educator, Lee Kaltman, and based in Ithaca, New York. In addition to the company’s established products, which include educational toys for early-learners, the company has recently expanded its product line to provide branded merchandise for the educational and corporate sectors—all products are created from sustainable and handcrafted wood sourced in the Finger Lakes.
The startup sources materials locally—all wood for their products comes from maple grown and harvested in Central New York—and their products are handcrafted by local artisans. Additionally, Ithaca Toy Company partners with Challenge Workforce Solutions for product assembly and finishing touches.
Also based in Ithaca, Challenge Workforce Solutions is a nonprofit creating pathways to employment for people with disabilities and other barriers. In 2021, the nonprofit formed an alliance with Mozaic, a larger nonprofit in Waterloo, New York which offers similar services to communities in the Finger Lakes. Ithaca Toy Company is optimistic about this alliance and what it means for their business and its impact.
Kaltman, who is an educator at New Roots Charter School in Ithaca, combines his entrepreneurial spirit with his background in education. The company’s education toy offerings include options designed for open-ended play and discovery, as well as for honing mathematical skills and pattern recognition. Kaltman’s goal is to provide a set of the company’s tactile toys to every Head Start—a federal program that promotes the school readiness of children hailing from low-income households from birth to age five—in the nation.
“We have focused primarily on product development for educational toys, but the company is more than the products we create, because we also support workforce development and ethical labor through our partnership with Challenge Workforce Solutions, so we needed to expand our product offerings to continue being sustainable and meet our goals,” said Kaltman.
Interested in scaling up production and expanding the startup’s product offerings, Ithaca Toy Company partnered with two different student teams from a course led by Robert Newman, a Senior Lecturer in the Engineering Management Program at Cornell University. As a result of working with the Cornell students on an updated business development plan, Ithaca Toy Company has branched out into the production of promotional products and personalized keepsakes utilizing the same materials for its educational toys.
“As an educator, working alongside these students was a fun experience for me. I learned a lot about how to manage others and the teams came up with a plan to help the company scale up in increments—detailing workforce development, calculating FTEs (full-time equivalents), conducting cost analysis,” said Kaltman.
The startup secured a license to produce Cornell branded Wood products and hired an intern from the program, Tolulope Olukanmi, a graduate student from Cornell University, M.Eng. ’21, as the company’s first Business Development Associate.
“I joined Ithaca Toy Company with interest in doing something in the education space. As an Engineering Manager, I was interested in managing the physical products being made and observing how the children interact with them,” said Olukanmi. “I hope to gain product management experience from the internship and I’m glad I get to learn about marketing and sales as well.”
Armed with new product offerings and talent, Ithaca Toy Company is moving forward with a renewed focus on being both sustainable as a company and impactful as a member of the community. In the next year we will add to our team as well as increase sales of our new private label coaster products and in five years, the startup plans to deliver sets into all Head Start locations nationwide. Learn more about Ithaca Toy Company and their mission by visiting their website.