Andrew Oliver, '02: Maladies Rendered Plush

Normally, cozying up with the common cold is something to dread. Andrew Oliver, ’02, thinks the fuzzy little plush toys from his company Giantmicrobes, Inc. just might change your mind about that prospect.

GIANTmicrobes® are dolls that look like tiny microbes, only millions of times the actual size. The five to seven inch toys are accompanied by an image of the actual microbe they represent, as well as some useful information. According to Oliver, the contents of the labels vary depending on the design: “For designs like the Common Cold, there is information about how to get it and more importantly how not to get it (basically, wash your hands a lot). For designs like Black Death or Ebola, the focus is more on the historical and cultural impact of the microbe.” Aside from the Common Cold, Black Death and Ebola dolls, the GIANTmicrobes line includes The Flu, Sore Throat, Stomach Ache, Cough, Ear Ache, Bad Breath, Kissing Disease, Athlete’s Foot, Ulcer, Martian Life, Beer & Bread, Flesh Eating, Sleeping Sickness, Dust Mite, Bed Bug, and Bookworm. In what he calls the professional line, consumers can also purchase H.I.V. and Hepatitis.

In addition to the obvious humor of cuddly pathogens, some of the toys have special touches. Kissing Disease bears coquettish eyelashes; the Flesh Eating doll includes a stitched-on fork and knife; and Sleeping Sickness is, well, asleep. Oliver suggests that both the comical and educational aspects of the dolls appeal to their customers: “The educational aspect that appeals to health workers and other educators also appeals to many lay people because many lay people are educators themselves—which is to say, they are parents. There are also the autodidacts, who tend to be curious children ages eight to eighty-eight. Finally, lots of people respond either to the humor of GIANTmicrobes, use them as sympathy gifts, or both.” The plush dolls can be purchased on the company website, and in various bookstores, toy stores, museum stores, drug stores, hospital gift shops, novelty shops, and catalogs.

The sense of humor evident in Oliver’s project is perhaps to be expected from a former writer for the Harvard Lampoon, a stint he calls an “extremely entertaining experience.” He says that “jobs were loosely defined” on the Lampoon and that “everyone contributed material, worked on the layout, visited the printer, distributed the magazine, and drank the beer.”

Before he attended the Law School and started GIANTmicrobes, Oliver was the articles editor at National Review magazine and also founded a language school in Russia, among a few other entrepreneurial enterprises. According to Oliver, the language school aimed to “mimic the immersion-based Middlebury Language School—but instead of immersing college-level Russian students in the hills of mid-western Vermont, we immersed them in central Moscow. The students paid according to western tuition rates, and the Russian professors were paid according to local needs. “Karl Marx would have been proud,” Oliver says.

GIANTmicrobes was incorporated in 2002. There was a demand among agents and retailers for a line of products rather than the initial idea of marketing only one product—the Common Cold. “A local Chicago seamstress made prototype samples that were sent to a dozen or so Chinese factories,” Oliver says. “We wired money to the factory with the best price/quality characteristics—and wondered if we’d ever hear from them again.” Oliver describes this period as the most difficult part of getting started. “In many ways,” he says, “it cut against the lawyer’s impulse to try to manage the risk.” Eventually, however, the products arrived and went to a warehouse. Free press soon followed. “Most significantly, a widely-seen, favorable mention about the product by humorist Dave Barry,” Oliver says. “The company has been growing—rapidly—ever since.”