Randy Marsden had Grade 11 all figured out. He’d have a first period spare and be able to sleep in an extra hour. Unfortunately his principal didn’t think this was such a hot idea, making him check in at the library when school started. To fill the time Marsden took a typing class and with that decision he set the stage for the rest of his professional life.
“I swear to this day that typing is the most important thing I learned in high school. I can type 80 words a minute, and everything I’ve done has related somehow to text entry, keyboards and ways to type,” says Randy Marsden. “It all stems from my principal making me go to the library on that morning spare.”
Today Randy Marsden is the CEO of Cleankeys, an Edmonton based manufacturer of, as he calls it, the world’s easiest keyboard to clean.
Study after study has shown that keyboards are one of the dirtiest things you touch on a regular basis. One study, done by a consumer group in the UK, found one keyboard that had five times more germs than a toilet seat. Dr. Peter Wilson, the microbiologist who conducted that particular study pointed out that what’s on a keyboard is often “a reflection of what is in your nose and in your gut”.
The Cleankeys keyboard is a solid surface, which makes it simple to wipe down and keep sterile. Their retail prices hovers between $300 and $400 and they’ve sold over 10,000 units.
The assembly of the low-level electronics is contracted out to a local firm while the finishing manufacturing and the packaging is done at Cleankeys’ Edmonton shop. While it is rare for a retail electronic product to get manufactured in Alberta, Marsden wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It is a more expensive to do it here but there are some real upsides. The first one being that if anything goes wrong, we’re here and we can deal with it and fix it,” says Marsden.
“We were inventing the manufacturing method along the way and in fact we still are. If we had had to do that and shuttle back and forth between China I don’t think it would have worked. There were too many little bugs to work out.”
Their unique manufacturing method involves assembling the keyboard without screws; instead it is sealed entirely with adhesives. With no screws water can’t get in, nothing can rust and the profile can be kept super slim.
Cleankeys continuously improves their product through warranty calls. As customers use their products in ways that could never be simulated in the lab, Cleankeys learns about their manufacturing problems and solves them as they occur.
“Because you can’t test every keyboard for six months and then ship it, the customers give us the feedback we need to improve the manufacturing process,” says Marsden.
Innovation in Everything
Marsden and Cleankeys were also recently the recipient of a 2011 Manning Innovation Award. The award, which is given to Canadians who develop and successfully market new products or processes, could have gone to Cleankeys for any numbers of reasons but one of their groundbreaking Touch-Tap solution for their keyboard.
The keyboard is a touch surface, like your iPhone or iPad, but to type you need to tap letters. Like Marsden learned in his typing class, you’re supposed to rest your hands on the home row when not typing. The keyboard has to know the difference between when you’re resting your fingers and actually typing.
When Marsden put this challenge to his engineering team the problem became evident with one of his engineers saying “Let me get this straight, we have to make a touch sensitive surface that doesn’t do anything when you touch it?”
The problem was eventually solved with vibration sensors that pick up the thump of someone striking a key.
Market Extension Strategy
With more than 90 per cent of their product being sold to dentists, Cleankeys is looking at expanding into hospitals.
Still, it’s early days and Marsden admits that market expansion is a work in progress. Right now they’re just learning all they can about how to market to hospitals as well their procurements quirks like whether to go through a dealer or direct market. However, despite all of the work it entails, it’s easy to understand why they want to expand into that particular market.
“We really think hospitals are the next most important market to go to. There are plenty of other markets, food processing plants, laboratories, health labs, lots of places where keyboards are shared by people but there is only one place where keyboards are potentially killing people and that’s in hospitals,” says Marsden.