2 brothers flying high with Star Trek gizmo $1 million, so far: Joshua and Matthew Kohn created a toy resembling the communicator pin worn by the characters of "Star Trek the Next Generation." Over 200,000 have been sold.

January 17, 1996|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,SUN STAFF

Even their biggest supporter -- their mother -- was skeptical.

Ignoring wary investors, the Kohn brothers of Baltimore lived for nearly a year on a shoestring budget, drove no-frills Yugos and saved enough money -- some $30,000 -- to invent and manufacture a toy that resembles the communicator pin worn by the crew of the television show, "Star Trek the Next Generation."

A passing fancy, it wasn't.

The gizmo, a gold and silver-colored contraption the size of a belt buckle that emits a warbling sound, has gone intergalactic: Over the past 18 months, about 200,000 of the "Official Communicator Pin with Authentic Sound!" have been sold in stores in the U.S., Australia, Austria, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Britain.

"My sons anticipated it," said 63-year-old Monna Kohn. "I wasn't so sure."

Her sons -- Matthew, 34, and Joshua, 32 -- never doubted it. "We knew this would succeed," Joshua said. "This was a no-brainer."

Such was their attitude when they were boys, building model airplanes and bicycles from scrap. It was no different one evening circa 1991 when Matt and Josh browsed through shops in the Inner Harbor and struck upon their Star Trek idea.

"It wasn't like a light bulb lit over our heads," Matt said.

It was more like a cricket. Wending their way through the Nature Co. store, they came across a key chain with a button that made the sound of a cricket. To the Kohn brothers' way of thinking, it sounded like the Star Trek communicator pin. Just like that, the next day, they called Paramount Pictures, which holds the Star Trek trademark, to see about obtaining a license to market their idea.

Once they got beyond a receptionist, they found that Paramount was interested.

But there was a catch. The Kohn brothers had to come up with the money to launch the product -- about $30,000 for the pin molding and the first 10,000 units. It didn't come easy. The Kohn brothers paid visits to potential investors. But no one was interest-ed, including their parents' friends and stockbroker, who said of the invention, "I really don't see anything."

Raising the money

Undaunted, they went about raising the money themselves. They had never let money get in the way before, founding their industrial design business, Kohn Inc., in 1987 with the purchase of a computer on a Macy's credit card. Back then, they worked out of their parents' third-floor studio, held down odd jobs selling motorcycles and driving trucks and took turns making cold-calls to get industrial design work.

Within two years, they moved to bigger office space, but money was still tight as they pursued their Star Trek invention.

They took whatever graphics work they could get, while Matt lived in an efficiency apartment and Josh stayed at his parents' home.

To eke out more savings, they denied themselves salaries and tooled around town in Yugos.

The sacrifices paid off: Within a year, they raised the money, found distributors to sell the Star Trek communicator pins worldwide for $12.95 and, to date, they have grossed nearly $1 million with an estimated profit per unit of $1 to $2 after Paramount's cut. Now, Star Trek fans everywhere wear the Kohn brothers' communicator pin. Well, almost.

"I don't really wear it," said confessed Trekkie Stephen Burch, senior regional vice president of the mid-Atlantic region for Comcast Communications Inc. The pin is part of his Star Trek collection, which includes a Star Trek mug, poster, Christmas ornament and mouse pad for his office computer. "The appeal to me is, I always thought their message spoke to what we'd like the world to be like -- peaceful and caring and open to the diversity that we'd all like," he said.

That appeal extends beyond the borders. The Kohn brothers' invention, although no longer sold in the United States, is a hit overseas, moving briskly at stores such as the Forbidden Planet in London, which sold nearly 7,000 Star Trek communicator pins over six months last year.

'A huge following for it'

"They look very similar to the communicator pin in the [television] series, they make a reasonably authentic sound, and there are so many people who want to play Star Trek here, I'm afraid," said Dick Jude, Forbidden Planet manager. "There's a huge following for it."

The Kohn brothers never doubted it. And for their faith, there was a payoff: Matt drives an Eagle Vision and Josh a Jeep Cherokee. Now, they are working on another invention -- tightly under wraps -- involving pet products.

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