Business has bite Local inventors offer advice to start-up entrepreneurs

The one-handed bottle opener called Kebo and children's eating utensil Chomp Stix, now rebranded as Munch Stix, are inventions by Mount Pleasant couple Rush and Judy Dixon.

Architects Rush and Judy Dixon have some advice for would-be inventors: Hire an intellectual property attorney.

The Mount Pleasant couple developed, registered and marketed a new product inspired by their young son, only to receive a cease-and-desist letter earlier this year.

Their journey began in 2012, when they were eating Chinese takeout at home and their son, Rush David, who was 7 at the time, referred to the chop sticks as "chomp sticks."

"We had a good chuckle," Judy Dixon said. "But Rush said, 'What if they really did chomp?'"

He started thinking what kind of animal would take a chomp and could be incorporated into plastic chopstick-like eating utensils for children. Inspired by their child's slip of the tongue, they called them Chomp Stix. What followed were Chum the shark, Al the alligator and Teri the pterodactyl - each sleekly shaped and designed like the animal they represent.

"We always wanted to manufacture things in the U.S.," said Judy Dixon, who recently left the architecture firm where she worked and joined her husband in their joint venture. "We found a company in South Dakota that did small runs."

The Dixons wanted something with elasticity and transparency of colors. Rush Dixon sketched them out, sent them off, and by December 2012, 6,000 of each animal-shaped product were streaming off the assembly line. Rush and his son went to check them out, and, of course, take a few home.

"When TSA checked my bags at the airport in Sioux Falls, (S.D.), all these Chomp Stix fell out," he said with a laugh. "They were playing with them."

The Dixons figured out quickly that they needed to target toy stores and aquarium and zoo gift shops to sell them.

The Coastal Cupboard kitchen and housewares shop in Mount Pleasant was the first retailer to carry Chomp Stix. The Magnifilous Toy Emporium on King Street was the first toy shop to stock them. Locally, they also can be found at Charleston Cooks, Hollipops and Southern Season. Along with other gift shops across the nation, they are now in the Museum of Natural History's pterodactyl shop in New York City, as well as the Georgia Aquarium, Baltimore Aquarium, New England Aquarium, Texas Aquarium and a few others. The suggested retail price is $7.95, though some museums and gift shops sell them for close to $10.

Number sold so far: 25,000. The shark is the most popular by far, Judy Dixon said.

The euphoria over their son's inspiration that led to the clever product ended last spring.

To bring them to market and protect their invention, starting in 2012, the Dixons applied for a patent and later submitted their trademark application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

They made the filings themselves without an intellectual property attorney, partly because the agency allowed that and because cash flow was tight for the start-up business.

They started using the Chomp Stix trademark and launched their product in March 2013 at the International Home + Housewares Show in Chicago. The product was named an Innovation Award finalist.

The Patent and Trademark Office registered the trademark after it went through its internal vetting process and a public comment period ended.

"Chomp Stix was ours," Judy Dixon thought.

But this spring, the couple received a letter from an out-of-state attorney representing the owner of a similar trademark. It ordered them to stop using the Chomp Stix name because it was confusingly similar to the other trademark. The owner of the trademark has not developed a product.

So they hired an attorney and sought to find a solution to maintain the brand they had created. They said it became clear that rebranding was the most viable option.

The product is now being called Munch Stix, and, yes, it has been trademarked. Shoppers will probably still see some Chomp Stix out and about, but soon the name will be just part of the early history of Rush3 Product Design Studio, the Dixons' product business. They also own and operate Rush Dixon Architects LLC.

"The realization of this stung for a while as the name Chomp Stix literally came out of the mouth of our babe," they said. "But it's still a fun product with a great back story."

The Chomp/Munch Stix wasn't the first product Rush Dixon designed.

In 2010, Rush Dixon's sister showed him an antique bottle opener from the 1930s during a family reunion in Myrtle Beach. The art deco piece was cane-shaped and made of plated steel, which tended to tarnish.

A beer connoisseur, Dixon started thinking he could improve on the idea. "I wanted to do a modern version, something that would last forever," he said.

Dixon drew up different designs, tweaking them as he went along. His final stainless steel product incorporated a hook at the top with a small magnet in it to latch onto the metal bottle top as it was pried off the container.

He designed the stem of the bottle opener a little longer and angled it down more sharply than the antique version. He put a loop at the bottom for a thumb to run through and apply pressure as the opener snapped off the cap, using just one hand to make the move and hold the bottle.

"We drank a lot of beer in the prototype phase," Judy Dixon said with a laugh.

And much to their pleasure, they had to try it on many brands of beer. "Some of the caps are tighter than others," Rush Dixon said.

With that, the Kebo, derived from "bottle key," was born. A less expensive version would follow.

They looked around locally and in the U.S. to see if they could find someone to produce them. They found a business in Conway near Myrtle Beach, but determined it would be cost prohibitive.

In 2011, they turned to China and ordered 5,000. They also decided to order an equal number of custom tins from a company in Utah as keepsake storage containers for their new product.

The first Kebos hit the shelves in November 2011 at the Coastal Cupboard. Charleston Cooks in downtown Charleston picked it up, too. It also can be found at the Museum of Modern Art and numerous gift shops across the nation. Sale price: $24.95.

The following March, they attended the International Home + Housewares Show with their new product.

"We were a little David amid many Goliaths," Rush Dixon said.

They walked away as the winner of the Innovation Award in their category.

"It was a lot of fun," he said.

To date, they have sold nearly 50,000.

They also decided to make a less expensive version of the Kebo from aluminum. It's called Kebo Light and comes in silver, green, pink or blue. Suggested retail: $11.99. Locally, Southern Season carries it along with the Coastal Cupboard and Charleston Cooks. Total Wine recently ordered 3,200 of them. To date, they've sold 12,000 Kebo Lights.

Brad Pitner, owner of the Coastal Cupboard, where the new products debuted, said all three have sold really well. "People love that it's locally invented, and a lot of people know them (the Dixons)," Pitner said. "They sell consistently all year."