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Almost every time Palo Alto native Colin Roche goes to the airport, he gets stopped and quizzed or searched.

On 20 to 30 occasions, what raised security officers' eyebrows were what Roche carried with him: the rocket-shaped metal pens called PenAgains that he invented and sells through his San Mateo company, Pacific Writing Instruments.

"They're like 'that's not a pen,'" he said.

So now when he travels, he carries enough of the ergonomically designed pens to hand out to surprised skeptics.

"Nobody's reinvented the pen really, ever," he said this week from the same corner booth at the Oasis, a Menlo Park pizzeria and watering hole, where the company came into being.

With their re-engineered pen now being sold in 20 countries and 20,000 stores in the United States, Roche and his partner, Bobby Ronsse, have set their sights on their next venture — the reinvented pencil. Based on the same design concept as their pen, the company's new child-oriented pencils are just starting to hit stores.

Unlike standard stick pens and pencils, which users often grasp with the wrong fingers or squeeze too tightly, PenAgain's pronged writing instruments force the writer to assume the correct "tripod grasp," with the pointer finger resting on the pencil's grooved body.

"It forces you into the exact posture you're supposed to use," said Roche, bemoaning the fact that in the era of computers, many teachers are less vigilant about writing techniques.

For students with fine motor skills problems and attention deficit disorder or older adults with diseases such as arthritis or Parkinson's, the pens and pencils often make writing much easier, he said.

"You don't have the same pressure," said Rob Cantor, CEO of the Philadelphia-based Insigner Machine Co. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease eight years ago, Cantor could no longer write legible notes on company memos until he discovered Roche's pen.

"The way you grip it, it's easier to control the writing instrument," he said.

Detention-designed

The basic concept behind both the re-engineered pen and pencil did not spring from a design or medical class, but out of detention one Saturday morning 21 years ago at Palo Alto High School that Roche earned by being late to class one too many times.

"It's like 'The Breakfast Club,'" Roche said, referring to the 1985 film about Saturday morning detention. During a detention break, the bored junior ended up strolling around the same Saturday flea market that is still held at the school every weekend.

There he bought a keychain with a robot-shaped pen and spent the rest of the day melting it down with a borrowed lighter. Later, Roche went home to tinker in his family garage "like the mad scientist" armed with a soldering iron and cheap pens.

Roche had always gotten cramps from writing, and his goal was to make a pen that would be comfortable to use. But after he finally made such a pen, no one else seemed to care.

While attending California State Polytechnic University, Roche said his fellow students were less than impressed.

"If you got to know me for about five minutes, I'd say 'I've got this idea for a pen,' and people would be like, 'Oh man ...'" he said. "Nobody gave me any indication it was a good idea."

Roche became a sales executive, but never forgot about his pen concept.

Production begins

Finally in 2001, at his 30th birthday party at the Oasis, Ronsse agreed to sketch out a file to manufacture the pen "just so I could shut the heck up about this," Roche said.

Within a few days, they had a sample product — a translucent red pen. The pair met at the same corner booth for the next nine months to get the company off the ground.

They spent the night before their first major trade show in New York in their hotel room super-gluing together the parts for 200 pens because an ultrasonic welder was not available.

Then in 2002, Newsweek magazine featured the pen in its "briefcase of the future," a mention that brought 5,000 orders in three weeks. Roche had to call on family and friends to help stuff ink into pens and drove five laundry bags of pens to the post office to mail.

Later that year, the company landed its first major round of investments and started manufacturing the product in China.

In 2006, Roche and Ronsse got stuck in traffic before a big meeting with Wal-Mart executives and arrived with only three minutes to spare. But in two test runs, including one in the week after graduation — "the only bad time to be a pen manufacturer" — the pen sold well, and Wal-Mart is now one of several major chains that carry both the pen and, soon, the Twist 'N Write pencil.

Designed for smaller hands and made in bright, glittery colors, the new pencil is easier for children with fine motor skills problems or who have trouble focusing, said Bonnie Bogdanoff, a New Jersey pediatric physical therapist who noticed the pens and called the company to ask when they would come out with a pencil.

"Because of the design, (children) can't fist the pencil," she said. "They tend not to grip it so hard and apply extra pressure."

Roche does not pretend his products will replace the standard ballpoint, but he hopes they can provide an alternative, or "what snowboarding did to skiing."

"We joke maybe someday people will be driving back to go see the shed," he said.

E-mail Kristina Peterson at kpeterson@dailynewsgroup.com.