Claude Solnik

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Mego CEO Marty Abrams: Father of The Action Figure

Marty Abrams, of Great Neck, CEO of Mego Corp., with his action figures.

Even before superheroes proved their superpowers at the box office in the late 1970s, Marty Abrams, of Great Neck, had an entrepreneurial eureka moment that made him the father of the action figure.

Inspired by comic books, TV shows such as Batman, and pop culture, he decided to bring these heroes to life on, well, a small scale. Abrams took the toy company his parents founded, Mego Corporation, and turned it into the master manufacturer of action figures, making the original comic book hero toys, including Superman, Batman, Hulk, and many more.

“Before I licensed and did a figure, it was never done before,” Abrams says. “I was the first one to translate two-dimensional drawings of comic book characters into three-dimensional action figures.”

Mego’s action figures topped $200 million in sales, which says Abrams, is equal to about $600 million today, before video games stunned these superhero toys like corporate kryptonite.

Great Neck-based Mego, named for a phrase Marty’s brother said when he wanted to go somewhere, went bankrupt in 1982. Abrams bought back the company and last summer brought it back from the dead.

Last summer, the company relaunched 120 action figures (and counting) with an exclusive line in Target. Superman flew again – at least in imaginations.

“The core customer for the new line is 25 to 55,” Abrams says. “They’re collectors, not kids.”

The Mego method remains the same: create affordable action figures. He rounded up nonexclusive rights (they’re cheaper) of characters and sometimes actors’ likenesses, as with Henry Winkler as “The Fonz.” In other cases, he got permission to make characters, but not the performers’ likenesses, leading to some figures (they don’t sell as well) that recreate characters, but not actors.

“We dress the characters in the look we’re creating,” he adds. Mego last year topped $12 million in sales and Abrams expects to triple that figure this year, before expanding beyond Target next year.

“Kids still want something three-dimensional to hold in their hand,” Abrams says, noting that children also remain customers. “They want to hold the good guy in their right and the bad guy in their left hand and smash them together.”

Minimum Wage Hike Making It Harder For Nonprofits To Help

Long Island’s nonprofits help many of the region’s most vulnerable populations, from the homeless to those with disabilities. So when New York State decided to hike the minimum wage, some people served by local nonprofits started earning more.

Groups typically see that as good news. But something else happened: Nonprofits themselves sometimes face higher costs due to the hike. Groups in general want employees to make a higher minimum, but employers also want to make sure they are reimbursed if their costs rise  — and that often is not the case.

“Of course, we want our communities to be able to earn a living wage,” says Rebecca Sanin, president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a Melville-based umbrella agency for hundreds of nonprofits. “And there’s value in increasing the minimum wage.”

As minimum wages rise statewide, Long Island’s rose to $10 an hour at the end of 2016, $11 at the end of 2017 and $12 an hour at the end of 2018. It’s slated to hit $13 at the end of this year, $14 at the end of 2020 and $15 at the end of 2021.

The other side of the proverbial coin means some nonprofits pay more — while not necessarily receiving more as contracts remain flat.

“The challenge is when you talk about nonprofits with hourly employees, perhaps childcare providers and other folks,” Sanin says. “They could be significantly impacted when there’s an increase in wages, but not contracts.”

Stanfort Perry, executive director of Brookville-based AHRC Nassau, leads a group which, including affiliates, employs 3,200 and has a budget of more than $220 million.

“Because we rely on government funding for our survival, we cannot raise the price of the services we provide,” Perry says. “We rely on government and legislators to pass bills that fund appropriately the services for the neediest folks on Long Island.”

Groups that pay more than minimum wage in some cases are reimbursed at minimum wage, so a hike in minimum means they’re reimbursed more. But contracts often span multiple years without mechanisms to make adjustments based on rising wages.

“Government contracts need to reflect that wage increase,” Sanin adds.

Nonprofits have to find other ways to make up for shortfalls, possibly ramping up donations.

“It puts a significant burden on the need to fundraise for additional dollars,” Sanin says. “Organizations already are working on tight budgets.”

LI nonprofits face other challenges since the region’s “demographics have shifted dramatically,” Sanin says, changing the mix of services needed.

“We are continually getting increases in the cost of health insurance, general liability coverage, workers compensation, utilities,” Perry, who would like to see cost of living increases built into agreements, adds. “Those costs continue to go through the roof.”

At the same time, some contract amounts decrease, putting pressure on bottom lines.

“You make adjustments as necessary. Many agencies have to lay off people,” Perry says, noting his has not. “Agencies are merging, because they can’t stand alone to provide services.”

Volunteering remains a key component in the nonprofit mix. The New York State Department of Labor notes nonprofits’ “volunteers, students, trainees, or learners/apprentices” often are exempt.

Low unemployment can make it tougher to recruit qualified workers, Perry adds. And the cap on state and local tax deductions impacts donors and those in need.

“A very significant amount of folks owed money for the first time in their lives or had reduced refunds,” Sanin says. “Traditionally their family had relied on those to catch up with bills.”

Nonprofits continue to extend a safety net, helping those in need and, in most cases, meeting their own needs, although they want to make sure that as mandates increase, payment keeps pace.

“We find a way,” Perry says. “We work with government as our partners to make sure we continue to grow and develop new opportunities.”

The Big Picture: Seeing Deep Inside Matter With Stony Brook University’s Reality Deck

Arie Kaufman inside The Reality Deck (Photo by Colin McGuire)

On the third floor of a futuristic glass and steel building at Stony Brook University, researchers in a 30-foot by 40-foot room see something midway between a microscope’s image and a movie theater.

The Reality Deck is a space covered with 416 27-inch Samsung screens, each with 4 million pixels, that immerse scientists inside images that make a high-resolution TV look like a Model T Ford. The screens’ 1.5 billion pixels, like living, thinking grains of sand, provide visual information, so scientists can see and understand microscopic mysteries, from medicine to astronomy, from deep inside E. coli molecules to the Milky Way.

“This is the largest in the world,” Project Director Arie Kaufman, who created the Reality Deck, says. “Guinness asked us to give them information. They want to list us as the largest immersive display in the world.”

The room is inside Stony Brook’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, a 100,000-square-foot high-tech facility honeycombed with computer and virtual reality labs.

“There’s probably more data collected in the last two or three years than in the entire history of the human race,” CEWIT Executive Director Dr. Satya Sharma adds. “When you collect that much data, how do you make sense out of it? One way is to visualize that data.”

CEWIT researchers are doing cutting-edge work on everything from virtual reality to machine learning and healthcare to driverless cars, sometimes using these screens on steroids.

“You can see billions of billions of neurons and connections,” Kaufman says of medical images. “You want to see what part of the brain this is coming from.”

Researchers from NASA to neurobiologists can look at medical applications, astronomy, drug design, architecture, transportation, storm surges, Sandy, climate change, clean room applications, and power plant design.

Suddenly, data can become easier to decipher on a larger scale: Solutions buried in matter become clear as writing on a billboard.

“Typically, in a microscope, you don’t see that much. Here we can look at things and we can make sense,” Sharma says. “If you want to kill a molecule, we can look at which atoms you need to work on. It’s a data display device, looking at minute details.”

Almost 7 miles of cable and 3,000 connectors tie together the panels near the building’s air conditioning’s units.

“These are relatively light panels that consume low power and produce low heat,” Kaufman says. “There are so many components. This is really an engineering feat.”

It’s named after the Holodeck, a fictional virtual reality room in the Star Trek series, but this is all science and not fiction.

“We wanted something similar to the Holodeck, a futuristic environment,” Kaufman says. “We have this real thing you can touch and see.”

Accelerate Long Island: Speeding Up Startups

SynchroPET CEO Marc Alessi, second from right, with his team that was assisted by Accelerate Long Island.

In a push to turn brainpower into business, the nonprofit Accelerate Long Island provides money, mentoring and more to launch companies based on work at local research institutions.

Think of it as startups on steroids or administered adrenaline to commercialize research from academia.

“It’s important for retaining innovation, jobs and economic development through commercialization in our area,” says Peter Donnelly, Stony Brook University’s head of technology commercialization and the group’s managing director.

Accelerate is a partnership between Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Book and Hofstra universities, Northwell Health, and the Long Island Association.

“The research institutions we have are fantastic,” Donnelly continues. “However, we’re not as good at commercializing and retaining that innovation on Long Island or the City. There’s opportunity there.”

New York State provided $500,000 in initial grants that Accelerate invested in 10 companies, such as Sulfcrete, developing environmentally friendly concrete; Envisagenics, a bio-informatics firm; and Traverse Biosciences and DepYmed, both developing drugs. The 10 companies have received almost $30 million in follow-on funding since then.

“Its goal is to help launch early-stage companies,” adds David Calone, an Accelerate Long Island Board member and CEO of Jove Equity Partners, a venture capital firm. “They had science and concepts and ideas, but not necessarily finished product.”

Investors ordinarily wait until companies are further along, making seed money scarce: This funding fills a gap.

Accelerate provided a $50,000 state grant to SynchroPET, a company that develops high-tech imaging products. The company also received that amount combined from the Long Island Emerging Technology Fund, which Calone launched, and Topspin Partners.

“Without Accelerate, I don’t know if we could have interested venture capitalists to make that early investment,” SynchroPET CEO Marc Alessi says.

Cornell University is testing SynchroPET’s human PET scan device, but not on humans. Researchers are using “phantoms,” plastic modules injected with dye. Alessi expects work with human beings to begin soon.

SynchroPET has already raised $1.5 million and is gearing up to raise $2 million to $3 million and to begin sales.

Accelerate recently launched the Accelerate New York Seed Fund with $3 million from the Empire State Development Corporation, for companies on Long Island, in New York City and the Hudson Valley.

These investments can be risky business, but can help turn technology into products, saving lives and creating jobs. 

“We have all this great science happening,” Calone says. “We need to make job-creating companies happen. This is how you get it started.”

Water Worries: Companies Selling Costly Filters Target Long Island

(Shutterstock photo)

A man conducting a free water test for New Jersey-based Aspen Water Solutions recently arrived in a Plainview home on Long Island with a suitcase and what appeared to be a chemistry kit.

Wearing a shirt with the words “Aqua Maven” along with The Home Depot’s bright orange logo as an authorized service provider, he whisked out a beaker, test tubes, and various reagents. He quickly turned a kitchen into a makeshift chemistry laboratory, testing for chlorine levels and substances dissolved in the water.

“Wow, baby. Look at you,” the man said in apparent shock. “This is your water unfiltered. This is what you’re drinking, cooking, and bathing in. I was not expecting that.”

The results of the chlorine test, he said, showed shockingly high levels that should worry anyone.

“Long Island’s water is probably the worst I’ve ever tested,” he said after testing for total dissolved solids, as transparent water became murky. “You have different issues all throughout Long Island.”

In addition to identifying the problem, he promised the solution in the form of a filter that he said would cost nearly $6,000.

“People are buying filtration systems,” the salesman who did the tests said as he took out fliers for filters and a Newsday article about problems with groundwater. “If you’re interested in fixing it, we can fix it very simply by putting a house filtration system on it.”

WATER WORRIES

While the pitch sounds scary, it may be based on more fear than fact. At this reporter’s request, he repeated the tests with Poland Spring bottled water, which became murky and, he said, performed poorly. But the test, not the water, may be where the trouble lies in this case.

Salespeople armed with proof of affiliations with The Home Depot are going door-to-door on the Island and elsewhere, testing water for free and making sales pitches for multi-thousand-dollar filters.

They target areas where legitimate ground water issues raise concerns in the news. LI, whose sole source of drinking water is a subterranean aquifer, has had more than its share of issues. And there are real concerns regarding water in the region.

Pollutants left over from Grumman and the U.S. Navy created a plume of toxins that have impacted some drinking water wells, for example. Newly identified chemicals such as 1,4-dioxane have also been found on Long Island. A New York State panel in mid-December recommended strict drinking water standards for contaminants used in making firefighting foam and household products that seeped into groundwater.

And those are just a few of the issues that have emerged.

TEST TROUBLE

Water suppliers are investing in high-tech methods to better filter water. This, however, doesn’t mean there are problems with water that is coming out of the taps in LI homes. Suppliers are installing high-tech filters designed to fix the problem before it gets to residents’ faucets.

“Once they [salespeople] perform the testing and the consumer sees their water through the testing, the water looks gunky,” says Brian Hancock, an attorney at Pensacola, Florida law firm Taylor, Warren & Weidner, who is suing The Home Depot, as well as the maker of the RainSoft filter and a distributor, in Florida, and Ohio. “It has a negative visual impact. They believe there is something wrong with their water.”

Aspen Water sells Brita/Pro softeners and filters, a different brand, and has nearly 4.5 out of five stars from HomeAdvisor.com and only two complaints to the Better Business Bureau over three years.

But officials said that these tests can function as sales tactics, designed more to alarm than to alert. And additional tests of the water Aspen tested revealed no issues.

Tests by the Plainview Water District on the same faucet used by the salesperson revealed results officials said are well within federal, state, and local regulations.

“We’re operating in standard. They don’t need a filtration system,” Joseph DiGregorio, a plant operator for the district, says. “You’re going to have individuals approach homeowners and convince people the water’s not safe and they need a filter. It’s a hard sell.”

Calls to Totowa, New Jersey-based Aspen Water Solutions were not returned and the man who did the tests declined to discuss the product or tests he did. Home Depot said it expects all tests to be ethical.

“Home Depot expects the service providers who sell these products and systems to do so in an ethical, honest, and straightforward way,” Margaret Smith, a company spokeswoman, says. “If any service provider uses unlawful, deceptive or misleading sales tactics, it’s unacceptable and will be dealt with.”

That, however, is what Hancock says is being done. The Home Depot is being sued for violations of Florida’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act for free water tests done by firms affiliated with the retailer.

“Home Depot did not authorize, condone, ratify, or tolerate any illegal acts,” the firm said in court documents.

THE HOME TEST

While The Home Depot argues it isn’t doing the tests, attorneys suing the retailer see the firm as helping to open doors to what could be deceptive practices.

“The in-home water testing is the misconduct that is at the heart of our case,” Hancock says, noting it’s the test, not the equipment, that is his lawsuit’s focus.

The Florida Attorney General’s office warns that consumers should “avoid free home water tests,” which can easily be designed to scare and sell.

“Some unscrupulous salespeople prey upon concerned consumers by using scare tactics and fraudulent practices to sell their water treatment devices,” according to the Florida Attorney General website.

While free, sometimes misleading water tests may be more common today than in the past, they are nothing new.

“Avoid ‘free’ home water tests,” the FTC noted as far back as 2013. “Offers to test the tap water in your home for free are almost always part of a sales promotion. More important,  in-home testing does not provide the specific, in-depth analysis that is required to determine if your water needs treatment and what kind of system is suited to your needs.”

The FTC pointed out that “a wide variety of water treatment devices are available, ranging from relatively simple, low-cost filter devices for faucets to sophisticated and expensive systems that treat water from its point of entry into your home.”

The agency notes that “no water treatment device can solve every problem” and, even if you get a filter, it’s important to match it to your needs.

“Some systems only soften water by removing calcium and magnesium, while others eliminate virtually all minerals and foreign matter present in the water,” according to the agency.

Water supply officials say tests often are designed to make people afraid rather than to identify issues.

“All of our water meets very rigorous water control standards set by the state and federal government,” says Tim Motz, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA), which serves 1.2 million residents.

CHLORINE QUESTIONS

Testers such as the one who evaluated the water in a Plainview home sometimes indicate small amounts of chlorine are problematic. Local water officials, however, said the absence of chlorine, used to purify water, could be a sign of trouble.

“The purpose of the chlorine is to prevent bacterial growth,” says Kevin Durk, director of water quality and laboratory services for SCWA. “You want chlorine to be present.”

DiGregorio says providers are “required to maintain a chlorine residue to prevent bacterial outbreak” and rebutted the idea that chlorine residue is a concern.

Chris Niebling, laboratory manager for SCWA, says water providers are required to test for about 150 compounds, but Suffolk tests for nearly 400.

“All our water will have some TDS (total dissolved solids), because there are naturally occurring minerals,” Niebling says. “It’s not a health hazard. You want naturally occurring minerals in there.”

Durk says “there could be good things in the water, such as minerals,” including magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium. While their presence would make water look murky in a test, some minerals may be desirable rather than dangerous.

SOFT SALES PITCH

Devices such as the Brita® Pro, which the tester in Plainview marketed, often are water softeners — filters that, local providers say, may not be necessary or helpful in this region, since local water is “soft,” without high mineral content.

“None of your dissolved solids in concentration exceed any limits,” DiGregorio says. “You don’t need to soften your water.”

Water providers do thousands of elaborate laboratory tests that are more detailed than the tests salespeople can do with their kits, suppliers say.

“Contact your water supplier or health department if you’re concerned,” Durk says. “They would test the water.”

Filters can leave beneficial minerals, but also may remove water impurities along with healthful minerals such as calcium.

The World Health Organization released a report stating that water stripped of all minerals “has a definite adverse influence on the animal and human organism.”

Filters can make water better, but also can make things worse, especially if improperly maintained.

“If you don’t change your filter on a regular basis … you can get a bacterial buildup,” Durk says. “It can cause more harm than good.”

Long Island’s Big Cat Premium Electric Bikes Makes Cycling Easier

Courtesy of Big Cat Premium Electric Bikes.

They say that adversity is the mother of invention. In Vincent Gebbia’s case, his Holbrook-based company came out of an effort to solve a problem his mother faced.

Gebbia founded Big Cat Premium Electric Bikes after his mother and father went cycling in Bellport village in 2012.

“She couldn’t get up the hill on her traditional bicycle,” he recalls. “She was crying that she couldn’t be mobile. She was distraught.”

Gebbia, who had seen electric bikes while in China, designed his own version for her and then for the general public.

“I said, ‘I’ll create a bicycle for her,’” Gebbia says. “I created a prototype with my mom in mind.”

He created a basic design that he tested and tweaked based on his mother’s and others’ input. The result was a unisex frame with a motor, battery centered for weight distribution, sweeping handlebars and other features.

While the bike lets riders tap electric power, making cycling easier, it can actually let a rider go further, which can lead to a good dose of exercise. Gebbia’s mother lost 40 pounds and put in more than 500 miles on the bike in the first summer alone.

But what’s with the name?

“Big Cat is my nickname,” adds the 44-year-old CEO. “I adopted it, created a company. And I thought it was a memorable name.”

The Big Cat name (no connection to Big Cat Week on the National Geographic Channel) is on the license plate of his Cadillac Escalade these days as well as the bikes his firm produces.

His family was in the laundry and dry cleaning business. He was a salesman for that company for 10 years and became a licensed real estate broker at age 21. He started and sold a business called the Back Rubber, distributing chairs nationwide for massages in places like malls and airports. Then the Big Cat electric bike business was born. The bikes are designed in the U.S.A., although they’re made in China.

The firm has grown to earn nearly $1 million in annual sales, he says, including 11 national dealers and online sales as well as test models in Walmart. Big Cat on Long Island operates a corporate store in Holbrook. The saying that a cat has nine lives seems apt for Gebbia.

“I’ve lived a lot of lifetimes,” he says. “I’m a big cat. I got nine business lives, right?”