In Matt Kriebel's world, stuffed microbes are cuddle toys. After all, there's nothing more adorable than a plush salmonella or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA around school gyms and nursing homes.
But for endless hours of amusement, Kriebel recommends Buckyballs, a cluster of 125 highly magnetic spheres the size of BBs that can be assembled in as many ways as the mind allows.
He also likes the fake butterfly in a jar that appears to take flight (thanks to electronics) when the lid is tapped.
"So much fun," Kriebel said one morning last week as he rapped on a jar, setting the orange-and-black wings inside aflutter.
Then again, Kriebel, 44, confessed to being "that much of a science geek" that he volunteered at the Franklin Institute in high school. And he majored in physics in college.
Instead of toiling in a laboratory, however, he has embarked on an entrepreneurial endeavor he acknowledges is a tricky straddle: serving customers looking for a fun time and those with serious science business to conduct.
"Yes, I know about the toys, but I know about the serious stuff, too," Kriebel said from the retail space on Main Street in Manayunk, where he operates a toy store with a decidedly un-fun name - Spectrum Scientifics. Through an online business with the same name, he sells high-end labware and equipment such as beakers, incubators, mini-centrifuges, and infrared microsterilizers to industrial customers and school districts.
Kriebel has to be able to assess not only what will be hot sellers among grade-schoolers and teens - for example, an electrostatic generator wand called the FunFlyStick that elevates Mylar strips - but also what will be in demand by small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
The latter group has been a growing opportunity for Spectrum Scientifics, Kriebel said, as scientists laid off in recent years by Big Pharma have started up small enterprises and turned to local suppliers.
The road to what Kriebel describes as his current "kind of schizophrenia" in business started with a different course, charted long before he opened the toy store in November 2007.
After graduating from Connecticut College in 1989, his plan was to teach physics and thereby indulge his curiosity for "how the universe worked." But there were no jobs, thanks to a "nasty little recession" at the time, Kriebel said.
The Franklin Institute was hiring, however. Kriebel took a job on the museum floor, explaining exhibits and performing demonstrations, before joining the institute's traveling science shows a year later. For eight years, he visited schools from Virginia to Connecticut to inspire students with demonstrations involving liquid nitrogen, hot-air balloons, electricity, and more.
When burnout hit in 1999, Kriebel applied to a company revered by geeks the world over: Edmund Scientifics in Barrington, N.J., where he worked "in a really cool job" testing telescopes, spectrophotometers, and magnifiers until that division was sold in 2001.
He moved to California and worked for Orion Telescopes & Binoculars until 2004, when the owner of that company also decided to sell. Then he moved back to Philadelphia and took a job at Edmund Optics, where he stayed until 2007, evaluating and acquiring surplus optics, developing catalogs, and managing product lines.
By then, he had determined that he'd like to run a science store of some kind, in part to convey to the video-game generation that science is not "all boring. It's fun stuff."
After taking classes at Wharton, Kriebel drafted a business plan, signed a lease for the storefront in Manayunk, and bought $40,000 worth of inventory. After an unsettling first day during which Spectrum Scientifics had only one customer, business steadily improved. The company, with one employee besides Kriebel, has had annual sales growth of 20 percent to 30 percent after the first year, he said.
Sales this year are expected to total $250,000 - a slight decline from last year, due in part to a drop in robot orders from the financially strapped Philadelphia School District, he said. Toys are outpacing industrial sales, roughly 60 percent to 40 percent.
Kriebel said he has worried that trying to serve two different markets could be a problem for customers, who might question his ability to master both.
"But I'm not about to give up one just to help the other," he said. "I don't think the company could survive with just one or the other."
Many science stores - including the Edmund Scientific factory store in Barrington, which had an almost fanatical following - have vanished, underscoring the uniqueness of Spectrum Scientifics, said Derrick Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute.
"I really admire his courage in taking on the challenge in doing this . . . to help people sort of get their science on," Pitts said of his former colleague.
For science to appeal to kids, Pitts said, it must be integrated into their lives in an entertaining way.
That's the essence of Aaron Muderick's Crazy Aaron Thinking Putty, a heat-sensitive, color-changing soft plastic that he and wife Elizabeth have been producing since 1998 - and that now can be found on the shelves of Spectrum Scientifics.
Muderick, of Narberth, also buys glassware for his lab experiments there, a place he considers integral to ensuring future scientists.
"If you don't sell science to the next generation," Muderick said, "then there's not going to be science done in the next generation."
From his Manayunk toy store, Spectrum Scientific, Matthew Kriebel explains how science also can be fun. Go to