TJ Scimone didn't set out to build a cutting-edge startup--at least not in the literal sense. The founder and CEO of Campbell, Calif.-based product design firm Slice originally targeted the housewares market, developing ultramodern interpretations of kitchen staples like vegetable peelers and cheese graters. But when a pocket-size ceramic blade for opening CDs, DVDs and other shrink-wrapped items became his most popular product, Scimone pivoted, vowing to make common tools like box cutters and scissors both sleeker and safer.
"Box cutters are scary and antiquated tools--most of them are dangerous and ugly," says Scimone, a serial entrepreneur who launched Slice in 2008 to fund long-term care for his autistic son, Alex, and who donates a minimum of 1 percent of all product sales to help fund autism research. "We wanted to make them safer and more functional, but also nicer to look at and use. People often think that just because something looks good, it doesn't work well. Consumers should have the best of both worlds."
Products like the Precision Cutter, winner of the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design Good Design Award, epitomize the Slice ethos. Created by Karim Rashid, one of the five rock-star designer partners in the Slice stable, the Precision Cutter boasts a zirconium-oxide-based micro-ceramic blade that lasts longer than traditional steel blades and never rusts. Rashid's streamlined, ergonomic design exposes as little of the blade as possible to reduce the risk of injury, but thanks to its thermoplastic housing and rubberized finish, the ballpoint-pen-like cutter fits so comfortably and securely in the hand that users can carve out intricate shapes with surgical accuracy.
"Our products stand out," says Scot Herbst, Slice's director of industrial design and the founder of Herbst Produkt, an independent design studio whose clients include Crate & Barrel and Home Depot. "When you look at what we offer compared to our competition, our products have a more innovative look and feel. Consumers can tell we paid attention to all the details. That first impression is so important."
It's that emphasis on aesthetics that has brought Slice to the attention of merchants outside the traditional business-to-business segment. The company's products are now available at retailers ranging from Amazon to Michaels Stores to The Container Store, along with office-supply vendors. "I don't think you see a lot of industrial safety products jumping to the gift market, but ours do," Scimone says. "When you make something that looks good but is also functional, it segues into other markets."
Still, he admits that most Slice customers place a greater premium on function than on form. So does Slice. "Functionality is the common language in everything we design," Scimone says. "Our main focus is on reducing injuries through better cutting, not just in warehouses, but across all areas of business. It can be as simple as a better tape gun or a letter opener. There's always room for improvement, even on things we've been using a long, long time."
A Cut Above
"The Slice brand is still about simplicity," says Scot Herbst, the company's director of industrial design. "We want everything to be user-friendly and intuitive, so we look for simple, incremental twists to existing products. All it takes is a functional twist here and an ergonomic twist there to make it better than what the competition is offering. Then I streamline it and make it beautiful and visually iconic."
Slice's Auto-Retractable Box Cutter meets all those criteria and more: Chic, colorful and resolutely nonthreatening, its innovations earned Herbst and co-designer Alfredo Muccino the prestigious red dot design award in 2011. Above are Herbst's sharp ideas.
Chicago-based writer Jason Ankeny is the executive editor of Fiercemobile content, a daily electronic newsletter dedicated to mobile media, applications and marketing.