SANDPOINT — The cool factor is undeniable — a sleekly contoured glass keyboard that “traps” colored light inside, making the input device appear to have materialized out of thin air.
The functionality and potential for almost infinite product extension are equally attractive, as witnessed by how quickly the entrepreneur behind these new products landed funding to move ahead with the ideas.
For TransluSense President and CEO Jason Giddings, that means his original plan to start developing the über-high-tech keyboards and mouse pads has been vaulted into fast-forward. For the Sandpoint area, it means a new light-manufacturing employer that could bring more than 100 new jobs into the market once production hits full stride.
Giddings initially sought financial backing through the Kickstarter web site — a move that resulted in drumming up nearly three times the $50,000 he first envisioned as seed money for the start-up. Ready to move forward with close to $150,000 from the “crowd-funding” site, he quickly found himself in the enviable position of fielding an overture from a Swiss consulting that wanted to put another $3 million into the venture.
Things became truly surreal when Software Solutions & Technologies flew him to its offices in Zurich, where the firm’s general manager Mark Collins joined him for a helicopter ride over the Swiss Alps. The two men landed at the base of the Matterhorn, where they inked the multi-million-dollar funding deal.
“With just Kickstarter, it would have been a prototype,” the CEO said, adding that the infusion of Swiss funding completely revised the game plan for development.
“In a sense, it slows it down,” he said. “When we received a big chunk of cash, it put us in a position where we want to this at a consumer level.”
Speed must be relative, because, to the outsider’s eye, things at TransluSense seem to be moving at the speed of light. The company is in the final stages of renovating a 16,000-square-foot former IT building on the south end of the Coldwater Creek campus to become the headquarters and manufacturing facility for the new products. Next month, they travel to Las Vegas for an unveiling at the Consumer Electronics Show, followed by the hiring of 15 employees to begin assembling the products in February.
What makes the keyboards and mouse pads so attractive to investors is the fact that they are not merely keyboards and mouse pads at all — they have the chameleon-like ability to be turned into whatever the end user desires. Each device is covered by a thin film that depicts familiar keyboard or mouse-tracking layouts. Want your mouse pad to become the master controller for your home theater system? Zip off one film and replace it with another that features the controls you need for the job.
Put simply, the devices are controlled by a series of LEDs that port light up through the glass. When the surface is touched, a camera picks up the connection and software does the rest.
“It becomes very intuitive — like using an iPad,” said David Rogers, vice-president and director of global operations for TransluSense. “You can do things like pinch, zoom and swipe right on the keyboard.”
“And because this is a multi-touch surface, we can add functionality as we move along,” Giddings added.
According to the CEO, consumers will have the ability to go online and collaborate with other users to share layout designs and come up with new ones to suit their needs. TransluSense then prints out the customized film “and they have a keyboard that functions they way they want it to function,” he said.
The ability to change the LED light color into almost any shade imaginable gives the devices an upscale cache in applications such as high-end restaurants, boutique hotels and other consumer or industrial settings where a keyboard might be prominently placed. Unlike traditional input devices, where dust or bits of food can become trapped, the TransluSense products can be cleaned by wiping them off.
That last feature has not been lost on the medical community, which already has been working with the company to find new ways to mitigate infection by keeping touch surfaces as clean as possible.
“We’ve got some hospital groups that are anxious to see how this would work in a hospital application,” Rogers said.
Not surprisingly, this fast-moving tech firm has envisioned a next-generation product that could prove even more effective against germs. By replacing the LEDs with UV lighting at specific frequencies, the devices could become a weapon to keep infection at bay in labs, nursing stations and exam rooms of the future.
“We have the ability to port in UV lighting that actually kills bacteria,” Giddings said.
Outside of the medical field, TransluSense has entered into a partnership with Intel, giving it instant access to one of the more robust distribution channels in the industry.
“They have identified our product as something that can prop up their desktop market,” Rogers said. “It’s a way to get new and innovative products into the marketplace.”
TransluSense expects to turn out about 5,000 keyboards per month when production starts early next year. Its assembly area has been designed so that new modules can be added as demand grows, allowing for incremental increases in both production and local employment.
“We’ll have 15 people in assembly to start, but that will go up dramatically pretty quickly,” the CEO said.
“We could put as many as 130 people in here,” he continued, adding that 100 assemblers would be joined by employees working in the areas of sales and finance. “At that level, we could turn out about 100,000 keyboards a month.”
It sounds like a huge figure, but compared with the biggest producers out there, it still would represent a small slice of the international pie, Rogers pointed out.
“We’re very much a niche business,” he said, “but we’re excited about making that niche go.”
Luckily for Bonner County, Giddings grew up in the Spokane area and revisited his old roots when searching for a place to start his new business. Big cities were out, he explained, because he didn’t want to be just one more company doing business in a big pond.
“We could have gone someplace like Portland, but coming to Sandpoint allows us to make an impact on the community,” said Giddings, who moved his family to the area as part of building the new company. “It’s an opportunity for me and we wanted to extend that opportunity by creating jobs locally.”
He credits Sandpoint’s planning director, Jeremy Grimm, and other area officials for making him aware of the vacant Coldwater Creek building, as well as for steering him toward resources for employee training and job creation.
In a corner of the business world where new products can be realized almost as soon as they can be imagined, it might be tempting for an entrepreneur such as Giddings to leverage his background in product design and his international manufacturing connections in order to jump headlong into the tech market. But executing a vision — even one that attracted millions in capital in a just matter of weeks — tends to be a time-intensive stage of company development.
“While I’d like to turn this on at full speed ahead, it’s probably smarter not to, because the infrastructure is literally coming together beneath our feet,” said the CEO, whose closed office door barely masks the sounds of construction going on throughout the rest of the building.
Besides, he added with a laugh, things have been moving fast enough over the past year.
“It has been one moment of excitement and one moment of sheer terror, back-to-back, since the start of this whole game,” he said.
To learn more about TransluSense and its upcoming line of products, visit the company online at: www.translusense.com