College project-turned-tech startup surpasses $1M in funding
Week in Geek – a roundup of science, technology and pop culture news with commentary each Friday
Everykey CEO Christopher Wentz
Right now, i’m working two jobs (three if you count The Long Shot), both of which require password changes for security every 90 days in order to log in to their systems. Not just any old password though, they must contain an arcane combination of alpha-numeric characters and symbols that i fear may open a rift in time and space if incanted aloud.
In addition to those, i’ve got passwords for my cell phone, tablet, desktop, laptop and host of apps and websites – a situation not unique to me and one that increases in scope as new technology is rolled out at an astounding pace.
But there’s good news for those of us who don’t keep a database (password-protected of course) for all of our various access keys that comes from one particular Cleveland innovator featured prominently in posts – the CWRU-grown startup Everykey. With wearable technology all the rage at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, the Everykey team who exhibited there fit right in with the cutting-edge developers.
Christopher Wentz, Everykey LLC CEO and 2013 graduate of CWRU with a computer science degree, took some time from his busy schedule to speak with me about how Everykey came about, how it’s grown and where he’s steering the company heading into the future.
Before speaking with him, i was already impressed with the virtual personal assistant who answered the phone. Maybe i’m just behind the times, but the AI-like receptionist who directed my call was pretty neat and i wondered what the UI was like on the user’s end…something to look into for another Week in Geek.
Despite the myriad scenarios in which the Everykey wristband has already found a use, the origins of the stylish wearable tech came about from a much simpler need than retaining electronic device passwords.
“We came up with the idea for a class project in an entrepreneurship class,” recalls Wentz. “The professor told us to come up with any kind of business idea, and we were all sitting around talking about how much we hate getting locked out of our dorm rooms. All of us had been locked out of our dorm rooms before, and we all decided there had to be a better way to get back in.”
Working from the idea that keys could become something more personal than a keychain you just carry around in your pocket, Wentz and the rest of team developed the idea for the wristband that would be with you all the time so it wouldn’t get left behind or lost.
Since then, the Everykey concept has grown considerably. The professor who taught the class was impressed enough by Everykey’s potential that he invested his own money to help Wentz continue developing the product. The initial duo of Wentz and CiCi Qian has blossomed into a team of about 25 people, growing steadily over the last two years since they first started.
“I don’t think we’d be around today if it weren’t for the Blackstone Launchpad here at Case,” Wentz said of CWRU’s initiative that helps students and alumni start new companies with funding, mentorship and encouragement. “It’s pretty much the driving force behind all of our success.”
Wentz explained that there wasn’t a single moment or event that catapulted the company forward. Rather, it was the result of continuing to work on the product and build capital that enabled them to hire additional staff and keep growing. That steady growth has drawn attention to their product, which continues to gather people who believe in the idea.
The notion that Everykey would store things like website passwords is something that wasn’t originally part of the concept. In the early days, the device was primarily intended to store access to mobile devices themselves – like the password-protection used to lock Android devices.
“We never thought there would be much need for it to enter passwords for websites,” Wentz explained. “We didn’t think that having it enter your Facebook password would be an attractive sell to consumers. But when we went out and talked to a bunch of people about what they’d want in the product, that was actually the No. 1 feature, so we pivoted a little and started emphasizing that more in our product development and marketing.”
At this point, Everykey is designed to interface with a user’s personal devices. So for example, if you went to the library and used a computer there, the device would not enter your passwords for you. However, Wentz said they are working on developing a USB module to enable it to work with any computer. There are some technical hurdles to overcome in order to achieve that goal, but nothing too monumental according to Wentz.
One of the key components that the developers kept in mind while developing the firmware was aimed specifically at ensuring the device is upgradeable and not a static device. One of their goals from the outset was building a platform that could be expanded upon as new ideas and technology come about.
“This is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of what we think we can accomplish,” Wentz said.
During their time at CES 2015, Everykey participated in a pitch competition hosted by ShowStoppers, a Cleveland-based event management company focused on technology. The pitch competition is open to any company in the Eureka Park area of CES, which had about 300 companies.
“Ten of them were chosen as finalists for the pitch competition,” Wentz said. “So we were extremely excited to be chosen for this. We win competitions every once in a while here in Northeast Ohio, but doing that on a national stage is totally different.”
The pitch competition went very well for Everykey, and Wentz said they received several press inquiries, booth visits and increased traffic because of their successful showing.
“We had a lot of fun at CES, and we had a lot of licensing opportunities and people reaching out to us,” Wentz said. “They saw our demo, and wanted to license our technology. Our competitor came, and we got to sit down with them. That was kind of a dream-slash-nightmare.
“A whole bunch of different opportunities came up,” he said.
Up until this CES, Wentz said they always wanted to be their own product and never really considered the idea of integrating into other people’s products. But after seeing the extent of the wearables section at CES, he realized how many wearable devices there are out there.
“It’s becoming a pretty competitive space, and most of those wearables are trying to find a new value proposition,” he said. “Something that distinguishes them from the others. One thing that we learned at CES is that, because of that, there’s a lot of possibilities that we can integrate our technology with things like Fitbit, or Jawbone, or Pebble, or some of the other wearables, to up their value proposition. We’d make money off of the licensing fees, and get our technology out there ahead of others, so it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”
Right now, Everykey is getting ready for the first shipment of their wristbands to those who pledged the successful Kickstarter. In March, they’ll ship around 2,300 units to about 1,600 backers. In addition to that initial shipment, Everykey continues to take preorders, which right now offers a $25 discount on the standard $100 pricetag.
As a startup company, the team at Everykey right now is focused on the product itself, so preorders for units has declined slightly from what it was during the Kickstarter campaign, but Wentz is happy to note that business is still healthy and continuing to experience growth. The reason for the plateau is due more to keeping their resources focused on creating the highest quality product they can right now, rather than diverting them for additional sales and marketing.
In 2015, Wentz is confident that their product will keep growing and shipping. He hopes to start working more with other companies to integrate technologies, and adding features to Everykey for unlocking additional devices. On the business side of things, there are several interested investors that will help Wentz keep the company growing as well.
Not surprisingly, Wentz views success in a similar way to basically every other person i’ve had the experience of interviewing here on The Long Shot. Whether they are independent filmmakers, film critics, video game developers, visual artists or, in his case, technology innovators, people like Wentz don’t see success in terms of dollar signs.
“If you’re doing what makes you happy, and you’re able to sustain that and maybe make a good living off of it, I’d say that’s success,” Wentz said. “I’ve never been driven by money necessarily. I think that people should always try to do what they really enjoy. And to me, what I really enjoy is developing consumer products and making something that literally thousands of people will end up using, and developing a brand name that I hope will become a national brand name. That’s what I see as a success in my personal life, and whether I make money off of it doesn’t really matter to me, as long as I’m able to sustain myself and live a healthy life.”
Life at Everykey right now is informal, Wentz said, with the company primarily working out of his Cleveland apartment that doubles as their offices. In that regard, Everykey presents a picture reminiscent of many of the leading companies that started up in someone’s garage – as a group of passionate people working together on something they believe in with hopes of achieving success through their endeavors. So far, this model has proven to work well for Everykey, and if their history in the last couple of years is any indication, they’ll continue to experience success and growth.
“We all have titles and everything, but rarely do those titles mean anything,” Wentz explained. “Most of the time, we all do whatever needs to get done. There’s a sense of camaraderie – everyone is friends around here. I try to make it so there’s not much tension between people, and we’re all trying to work towards the greater good of the company and the product.
A question that I get asked a lot is ‘Where do you see the company in 10 or 20 years?’ and I guess the way I’d answer that is I hope that one day it’s a national brand. We see these brands all the time like Apple, Microsoft and Google. We recognize their logos and they’re near and dear to us, and they instill a certain emotion is us. That’s what I really want Everykey to be one day…it’s not a power trip to make myself famous – it’s almost like an artist wanting their work to become popular. I want my art, and my business, to be well-known and recognized.”
As i mentioned above, Everykey is currently accepting preorders for the product which is planned to ship in March, and you can follow the link to get a $25 discount off the initial retail price for doing that. Personally, i hope to get one myself in the near future and i’ll be sure to give you the low down on the experience.
A new project based on work by Philip K. Dick
If you’ve been reading The Long Shot for a while, it should come as no surprise that i’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick. So i was extremely excited to learn just this afternoon that there’s a new project coming to the small screen in the near future. Actually, i’m not sure if that’s even the correct term anymore…small screen typically means the television, but this new series is offered from Amazon Prime so it could be on screens of all sorts of sizes.
The Man in the High Castle is based on the award-winning PKD novel and executive produced by Ridley Scott. The story explores what might have been if the Allies had lost WWII, leaving Japan and Germany to rule the United States. The pilot, which you can watch right now for free, has been attracting great reviews.
Here’s a clip from the web series, showing representatives from Germany and Japan discussing the partitioning of America.
The plight of another blogger
i was dismayed today to read about Raif Badawi, a blogger in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes because of an online forum he’d created called Liberal Saudi Network. The site, now closed, encouraged debate on religious and politcal issues in Saudi Arabia.
Badawi was charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” He’d also faced charges of apostasy – the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief – but he was cleared of that charge in 2013.
Reading about the horrendous treatment Badawi received for doing something i do every week without even thinking it might land me in any sort of trouble really made me stop and think about how great i have it here. And i don’t just mean me personally. Working in the news as i do, i am certainly aware of a lot of the problems and issues we face here in the U.S. like racial tensions, income inequality and restricted social freedoms in terms of things like gay marriage and so forth.
As bad as it can be here, though, i chaff whenever i hear people say things like we live in a police state or that America sucks.
We aren’t without fault, there’s no doubt about that. But what we do have is still a lot of freedom compared to many places in the world. We can rally for causes we believe in, and we have the freedom to voice our ideas and opinions even when they’re not popular and especially when they might be critical of our government.
Perhaps the most awful part of Badawi’s story is that it took the intervention of Amnesty International, not to stop the punishment, but only to delay the second round of flogging so that his wounds from the initial round could heal.
“Not only does this postponement… expose the utter brutality of this punishment, it underlines its outrageous inhumanity,” said Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and Africa, Said Boumedouha.
“The notion that Raif Badawi must be allowed to heal so that he can suffer this cruel punishment again and again is macabre and outrageous.”
This particular Week in Geek i would like to dedicate to Raif Badawi. What i write here isn’t controversial or a socially-conscious movement to raise awareness for anything, but it does represent our freedom here to share our thoughts and ideas in the form of a blog, something i believe very strongly in.
Please consider signing this petition to add your voice to others to safeguard Raif Badawi against a cruel, brutal punishment for simply creating a space for people to share thoughts and ideas!
Artificial Intelligence warnings…again
More news comes this week from the realm of AI, with an open letter from the Future of Life Institute calling for caution to ensure this emergent technology does not run beyond our control.
In some ways, i’m on the fence when it comes to this topic. It seems to be to be inevitable, probably within my lifetime, that advanced AI will be a common part of every day life. If i’m honest, i’m a little scared but not because i fear a sort of Terminator-like uprising. Moreso, i’m just concerned because i feel like AI is our philosophical successor as humans, and it’s weird to be living in an age where it doesn’t seem that far off.
Experts and high-profile people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk added their names to the supporters of the letter, and in the recent past vocalized their concerns about the dangers AI can represent.
It’s certainly a topic worth keeping an eye on, as i have done numerous times here myself.
Speaking of Elon Musk, he recently Tweeted that he plans to build a test track in Texas for the Hyperloop, a passenger transport system he described as “a cross between a Concorde, a railgun and an air hockey table.”
Riders would sit in cars that would be fired down a tube with most of the air removed, using magnets to accelerate and brake the capsules as well as prevent them from touching the sides of the tube.
The capsules would travel at about 600 mph, and would permit incredibly fast commuter travel like from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than 30 minutes.
Several people i’ve mentioned this too expressed terror at the very notion, but i’m sure those same sorts of people would have balked at airplanes, automobiles and locomotives before them.
Personally, i’d be all for something like this. Driving is a real frustration for me, so any news of self-driving cars and superfast rail transport sounds great to me.
Call me a thrillseeker – even the “windowless plane” sounds like a great idea to me.
Modular cell phone
Here’s something pretty nifty – a modular cell phone from Google’s Project Ara – a smartphone made up of interchangeable components.
Here’s a promo video of the concept, which i’ll let speak for itself:
Anyone else envisioning these components integrating with wearable technology? For example, you could snap one of the components into your wristband device…
* * * * *
Thanks for reading the 12th Week in Geek in addition to visiting The Long Shot. Of course, there were many more exciting things that happened in the world of science, technology and pop culture this week…but these were the ones that most caught my attention. If you have any news you’d like to share, drop me a line and let me know – i try to keep up with stuff but i can’t read everything!
If you would like some further reading, about some science and technology stuff that happened this week, here’s a few links i hope you find as interesting as i did:
- A fellow blogger takes an in-depth look at Dark Energy
- Record high for UK’s creative industries
- Awesome prints of classic Nintendo boss fights
- Chevy could beat Tesla to building the first mainstream electric car
- Robot designer Robert Kinoshita passes away at age 100
- Smart shoe devices generate power from walking
- Google Glass sales halted but firm says kit is not dead
Follow @longshotist on Twitter for frequent shares of related articles and (hopefully) humorous nonsequiters.
Week in Geek will be back next Friday, Jan. 23 and i’d love to see you here!
Remember – if you would like to contribute to The Long Shot, i’d be happy to make that happen!
Week in Geek also appears alongside other great blogs at The News-Herald Blogs (click the logo at the top right of the page for the main site).
Thanks for reading!