It may seem tough to get kids away from games and interested in learning these days, but Tony Lee thinks he has the answer: bugs.
Lee’s business, the Real Insect Company in Menlo Park, encases fumigated insects into Lucite acrylic resin for educational and even fashion purposes.
Lee started putting scorpions, ladybugs and other creepy-crawlers into the safe-to-handle cases to help get students interested in the natural sciences. He has been able to sell handcrafted products to nearly every school district in the state, the San Diego Zoo and even the New York Natural History Museum.
“Every time we go to schools to do presentations, we get that ‘wow’ look,” Lee said. “It gets them interested and away from video games and maybe into the library so they can look for themselves.”
Eventually Lee and his wife, Qing, began to make ant necklaces, spider bracelets and other bug jewelry. Their most popular seller is still the up-to-100-species educational display cases that they provide for preschool students all the way up to university scholars.
“Whether you like them or not, insects strike a chord with many people,” he said. “I get many reactions from people but most of them admire the beauty of nature.”
Someone who clearly sees this bug beauty is Lee, whose passion has always been entomology.
“I was very interested in insects as a child; this was a long time before they had video games,” he said. “We used to spend a lot of summer nights just catching fireflies and playing with insects.”
He also remembers his disappointing science classes as a kid when he had to examine dried out insects in dangerous glass cases. None of Real Insect’s bugs are dried out; as a result, they look the same in the resin as they would in the Southeast Asia rainforests from which most of them come.
The Lees raise half of their insects at a farm near their office and get the rest from a Chinese government fumigation program.
Other insects they use include tarantulas, silkworms, butterflies and honeybees. The business has also begun to encase plants and nautical species such as crabs inside the resin covering.
“It’s kind of a unique type of business,” he said. “We find that a lot of people are very interested in insects. This is one of the best ways to show them, primarily with children. Education is why we started the business and why we work so hard.”
New project: The Real Insect Company
Last project: Computer programming engineer
Number of e-mails per day: At least 2 dozen to 3 dozen
Number of voicemails per day: At least a dozen
Essential Web site: realinsect.net
Best perk: To see the expressions on thekids’ faces when they open their eyes wide and see these insects
Education: Bachelor’s in engineering from Georgetown University
Last conference: San Francisco International Gift Show
First job: Paper delivery boy for The Washington Post
Original aspiration: Something with insects
Career objective: Get more kids in the United States interested in science while making it affordable for schools
Details: Sailing on the Bay, hiking
Hometown: Born in Taiwan, but moved to the United States at age 1
Sports/hobbies: Big 49ers fan, tennis and of course insects
Transportation: Toyota Minivan
Favorite restaurant: Cheesecake Factory in Palo Alto
Computer: Two HP laptops and a Dell desktop
Vacation spot: Lake Tahoe
Favorite clothier: I’m very partial to Tommy Bahama shirts
Role model: My father; he was a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy
Reading: I try to read three newspapers per day, also a lot of nonfiction science books
Worst fear: That education in the U.S. keeps going the way it’s going
Motivation: The children who benefit from these products