About 20 years ago, Chuck Labitan was at the beach when he noticed people were throwing footballs or playing smashball, but it was rare to see anyone tossing a baseball back and forth.
He speculated the reason might be that beach-goers didn’t want to ruin their leather baseball gloves with sand and salt water.
“I thought there might be something here,” said Labitan, 56, a Carmel Valley resident.
So, he set to work on designing a baseball mitt made of the rubbery material used for wetsuits, with the catching surfing reinforced by material similar to the sole of a beach flip-flop.
He patented his idea, then caught the attention of Hasbro, the toymaking giant. And thus was born Labitan’s passion project, an avocation as a “freelance toy inventor.”
Fast forward to the present, and Labitan has a new brainchild – a game he invented called “GoChopstix.” Like the earlier project, the idea came from a real life situation – in this case, watching his son, Christian, a Torrey Pines High School junior, attempt to feed himself with chopsticks at a local Japanese restaurant.
Once again, Labitan sensed the possibility for a game that would teach kids how to use chopsticks, thus improving their manual dexterity while they had fun competing against friends and family members. The game consists of a rotating tray, which contains play food items. The object is to pick up food from the tray and move it to the players’ personal “Bento” trays.
Labitan debuted the game before a national TV audience on Sunday, Oct. 1, during the season premiere of “Toy Box,” an ABC show in which toy inventors compete for the votes of a panel of child judges. The winner of each episode goes on to the season finale, when they compete for the prize of having their toy manufactured by Mattel and sold in Toys R Us stores, as well as a $100,000 cash award.
While Labitan didn’t win top honors on Oct. 1, he found the experience thrilling.
“It was exciting and suspenseful, just the whole idea of being on national TV was exhilarating,” he said.
The show was taped over three days at a Hollywood studio in June.
Seven inventors competed for the chance to move on to the final. “We were all given our three minutes of fame and you had to make the best of it,” he said.
Labitan hopes that even though he didn’t win the competition Oct. 1 (a water toy took the prize), Mattel will still decide to manufacture his game, as happened with two other toys during the show’s prior season. If not, he is launching a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo.com.
Those who invest a minimum of $24 will get a copy of the game when it is produced in 2018. Those interested can go to the Indiegogo site, or visit Labitan’s website, GoChopstix.com.
When he’s not designing toys, Labitan works as a business development consultant with local tech companies, including a startup that makes a stand-alone speaker to produce 3D sound, similar to a surround-sound system with multiple speakers. The technology behind the product was created at UCSD.
Labitan and his wife, Ana, and their son are long-time Carmel Valley residents who are involved in community sports such as recreational basketball and Little League.
Labitan said he was drawn to inventing toys because he enjoys creative challenges, whether it is crafting business deals for his clients, or filling an unmet need in the marketplace.
“I try to find a solution,” he said.
He earned a degree in chemistry from Indiana University and later added an MBA to his academic credentials.
Although his beach baseball glove never reached the marketplace because the materials he used were too expensive to meet Hasbro’s requirement that the item sell for $15 or less, Labitan hasn’t given up. He’s redesigned it with a less expensive fabric and plans a crowd-funding campaign to market the baseball mitt on his own.