The Washington Post

From plush toys to T-shirts, I Heart Guts makes the body its business

“Do you know where your thyroid is?” asks Wendy Bryan, peering down at 8-year-old Devin Thoren through a pair of thick-framed sunglasses with the lenses popped out.

The Woodbridge youngster looks back at her and shakes his head. He has no idea. So Bryan grabs a plush, canary-yellow version of the metabolism regulator and stuffs it under the boy’s chin.

Bryan makes fuzzy, stuffed toys that resemble human organs. That’s the simple job description. Some days she acts as a de facto medical therapist for recovering patients; other days she plays the role of an anatomy educator for young kids.

But since creating I Heart Guts in 2005, Bryan carries one title everyday — businesswoman. A graphic designer by trade, Bryan’s small business began with sketches in the margins of other work projects.

Today, the basement of her Takoma Park home is stacked to the ceiling with boxes full of plush bladders, spleens, lungs and testicles. She packs and ships orders three days a week with the help of a University of Maryland student, and her husband, Codi Lazar, manages the finances at night after working all day in a geology lab.

Plush versions of the lungs, heart, kidney and liver. (Courtesy of I Heart Guts)

“I’m an art person, that’s what I do,” Bryan said. “But as I kept going, it grew organically.”

Get it — organically. Bryan isn’t short on puns and plays on words. An I Heart Guts T-shirt featuring the pancreas beckons “gimme some sugar,” while another showing a pair of kidneys reads “when urine love.”

The creative side of the business comes naturally to the mother of two. She’s even designed caricatures of the body’s more obscure parts, including the sebaceous gland, which lubricates hair and skin, and the pineal gland, which helps you fall asleep.

But the body alone doesn’t make a business. Growing the company has been a multi-year course in what it means to start and foster a basement-based business with no formal education.

The I Heart Guts line appeals to a surprisingly broad, if fractured, group of customers. Orders come from pediatricians and specialists, research centers, medical students and patients with a funny bone.

The business hit a snag in 2009 when the plush uterus — quite ironically — failed to pass a child safety test and had to be recalled. If tugged too firmly, the fallopian tube could dislodge and pose a choking hazard.

“At the time, this wasn’t funny at all,” Lazar said.

“We were just thinking we were going to go down in flames,” Bryan added. “It ended up being totally fine.”

Indeed, the reproductive snafu garnered lots of media attention. The company now distributes internationally to niche retailers and facilitates the bulk of orders through its Web site.

At last month’s USA Science and Engineering Festival, Bryan’s exhibit booth was mobbed by adults and kids alike. Online, the organs range in price from $14 to $24, based on their size.

“This is seriously a good deal,” Bryan tells a customer, holding up a plush, orange stomach. “On the black market this would be like $10,000.”

Brains were the big seller at the festival, but the heart usually gets the most love from buyers, especially around Valentine’s Day, outselling the other organs about 4 to 1.

“How many companies can go to Comic-Con and the next week go to an anesthesiologist’s conference and sell a lot at both places?” Lazar said. “It’s a badge of honor, I think.”

Steven Overly is a national reporter covering federal technology and energy policy with a focus on Capitol Hill. He previously covered the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital.



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